Advertising Lines of Appeal

Lines of appeal are the approaches used by advertisers to attract potential customers or clients. When a clothing company is trying to persuade people to buy its products, for example, it might use an advertisement that shows a group of attractive young friends wearing clothes from that brand and having a great time. In such an ad, the advertiser is appealing to your desire to be part of a group, so this kind of advertising approach is called a social line of appeal.

When you see such an advertisement, you won’t automatically think ‘Gosh, I can have more friends if I wear that T-shirt’ and then rush out to buy it. Instead, the advertiser is trying to plant a seed in your mind—that there is something special about the product or brand. The hope is that you will have a more favorable impression of the product/brand and that you will be more likely to buy it when the opportunity arises.

If you understand how lines of appeal are used in advertising, you can better protect yourself from having your thoughts and emotions manipulated by advertisers and you will be better able to make better consumer choices. 

Here are some of the most common lines of appeal:

  1. Social appeals (Friendship, Part of the gang, Romance, Sex, Stand out, Family, Good Housewife)
  2. Beauty & youth appeals (Beauty, Youth, Natural beauty)
  3. Lifestyle & culture appeals (Prestige/status, Adventure, Exotic, Fitness, health & athleticism, Culture, Subculture & Anti-subculture)
  4. Creativity & humor appeals
  5. Potential/improvement appeal
  6. Personal appeals: positive emotions (Heartwarming, Nostalgia, Empathy, Social issues, Patriotism, Cuteness)
  7. Personal appeals: negative emotions (Fear, Shock, Guilt, Outrage)
  8. Rational appeals (Solution, Bandwagon, Scarcity, Value for money, Authority/expert, Statistics, Celebrity endorsement, Testimony, Technical, Heritage/tradition, Modern/futuristic, Durability)
  9. Nature appeal
  10. Other appeals (Brand, Music, Comparison, Plain)

Trigger warning: some of the ads featured in this article are for addictive products (cigarettes, alcohol) and/or have sexual, racist, misogynistic and/or bigoted imagery.

1. Social Appeals

These kinds of advertisements focus on appealing to our desire to belong, to fit in, to be accepted, to be loved, to be desired and to be appreciated. There are a few different kinds of social appeal.

1.1 Friendship

Friendship appeal ads usually feature two or three people, typically of the same sex, happily enjoying each other’s company.

American Eagle Ad
Maltesers Ad

1.2 Part of the Gang

Having close friends is good, but belonging to a large group of young, attractive, energetic fun-loving friends will make your life richer and more colorful. This is the implied message of the part-of-the-gang line of appeal. Ads using this line of appeal typically feature a large group of laughing or smiling friends having a great time.

American Eagle Ad (The warm muted colors, sea of denim and long hairstyles give the ad a 1970s nostalgia feel)

1.3 Romance

Who doesn’t want to be loved?

Ad for Coca-Cola

Some companies like Hong Kong watchmaker Solvil et Titus make the romance line of appeal an important part of their brand identify. Solvil et Titus advertisements are often melancholic and nostalgic and deal with themes such as longing, separation and loss, which is a very different approach than the ‘love and happiness’ message of the Coca-Cola ad shown above.

Ad for Solvil et Titus

The company has created several long cinematic commercials such as this one (featuring a classic 1980s Canto-pop song, 似水流年, or ‘Years Flow Like Water’, sung by Anita Mui):

It is still quite rare to see same-sex couples in love appeal advertising; however, here is an example from a campaign by Coca-Cola to combat LBGTQ discrimination in Hungary. This ad campaign combines romantic appeal and social cause appeal.

Pro-LGBQT ad campaign from Coca-Cola.

1.4 Sex

Ads using the sex line of appeal tend to focus on the body as an object for sexual desire.

A typical Abercrombie & Fitch ad

Sex appeal used to be one of the most common lines of appeal in advertising, but it is less popular these days. One problem is that it has already been used so much that it has become too obvious. Another problem is that if this approach is done poorly, the advertisement may come across as being tacky or in bad taste. For example, in the following ad from Dolce & Gabbana, it looks like the woman is being attacked.

A questionable ad for Dolce & Gabbana

Sex appeal ads can be more subtle and may focus on suggesting a sexual feeling in they way the model looks at the camera, in the model’s gestures and/or in product shapes.

Coca-Cola ad

1.5 Stand out

Being part of a fashionable and energetic group is great, but wouldn’t it be even better to be popular and ALSO stand out from the crowd and catch everyone’s attention. The stand out line of appeal is based on this desire.

Midori ad

1.6 Family

Ads that use the family line of appeal tie the product or brand to the idea of a warm and loving family. Watchmaker Patek Phillipe, for example, ran a successful family appeal ad campaign in which they presented their watches as part of a family tradition. Each advertisement shows a parent and child bonding over a shared experience with the text explaining that the company’s watches can be family heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation. By focusing on attractive young parents with attractive children doing luxury activities like sculling, the ads combine the family appeal with prestige, potential and beauty appeals. The idea that the watch can be passed down to the next generation is also related to the durability line of appeal.

Family appeal can be combined with a fear appeal (‘Use our product to keep your family members safe!‘), as in this ad by Michelin, a tire manufacturer.

Michelin ad (This ad uses a play on words. The expression ‘ride on’ means ‘of vital importance to’, as in the sentence ‘The success of the program rides on the whether or not we can raise enough money.’ And of course, ‘ride on’ in this ad also literally means that family members are riding in the car)

1.7 Good housewife (outdated)

Here the focus is on being a good housewife. This outdated kind of ad is sexist in nature and implies the true value of a woman is in her ability to do household chores, please her husband and raise children. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, women’s magazines were filled with advertisements such as the following:

Heinz ketchup ad (‘HEINZ KETCHUP beckons a man! It cultivates the habit of coming home to eat’.)
Ad from the British Gas Council

Men’s magazines also used to feature ‘housewife’ ads, but these focused on what a man could buy that would improve his wife’s cleaning or cooking.

Ad for a Kenwood blender (“Cooking’s fun” says my wife “…food preparation is a bore!”)

You still see ads that use this line of appeal, but such ads can attract negative publicity. For example, Hong Kong company Giordano was criticized for this clothing line and accompanying ad. In the ad, the man is wearing a ‘Work’ T-shirt and a woman is wearing a ‘Cook’ T-shirt, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Giordano ad

The decline of the use of the housewife appeal show how lines of appeals can go in and out of fashion.


2. Beauty & Youth Appeals

These two lines of appeal are tied to the desire to be more attractive.

2.1 Beauty

A beauty appeal ad often just features a young, attractive and slim model doing nothing but looking off into the distance, off to the side or directly at the camera. The model in the advertisement is an ideal object to be admired for his/her good looks alone.

Lancôme lipstick ad

The advertisements often feature highly attractive models shot in carefully controlled environments with professional lighting. In addition, the images are also often Photoshopped to remove wrinkles and skin blemishes or even to adjust the body shape of the model. As a result, the images often show a kind of unobtainable ideal.

The beauty line of appeal is especially common in cosmetics, skincare and fashion ads.

Ad for shoes from Giuseppe Zanotti (The model isn’t even wearing the shoes; she just holding them)

This use of beauty appeal is less common in men’s advertising, but it is still a relatively popular advertising strategy.

Calvin Klein fragrance ad

Although the beauty line of appeal is commonly used in ads for clothing and skincare products and cosmetics, it can also be used for any kind of product or service. For example, the following ad for Sennheiser headphones uses the beauty line of appeal.

Sennheiser ad

Nowadays, women and (to a lesser extent) men are exposed to a large number of advertisements that send the message of how important it is to be beautiful. This repeated exposure to beauty-appeal advertising can have a negative effect on one’s body image and one’s self-esteem.

The beauty line of appeal—with its emphasis on physical perfection—is problematic, but it is made worse in the following anti-littering advertisements. The ad featuring a female model has the word ‘pretty’ highlighted, while the ad with the male model has the word ‘smart’ highlighted. When put side by side, the ads are basically saying men should be smart while women should be pretty.

Poorly conceived anti-littering ad campaign

Beauty appeal advertising often includes a youth line of appeal. The models are often very young and any signs of aging are usually Photoshopped away.


2.2 Youth

The message of youth appeal ads is usually: ‘Our products will make you look younger.

L’Oréal ad (‘Fight 15 signs of Ageing’)

When using the youth appeal, advertisers sometimes adopt a different approach in which the message is: ‘We can help you feel young!

Centrum ad (‘It’s better feeling young on the inside’)

2.3 Natural beauty

The natural beauty line of appeal is a reaction against the flawless, Photoshopped perfection of the beauty appeal.

Starting in 2004, Dove carried out its Real Beauty campaign, with advertisements for its brand of skincare and soap products. The ads featured women of all shapes, sizes and ages. The campaign was a conscious effort to fight against the unreal expectations created by the Beauty line of appeal.

Images from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign

The model Winnie Harlow, who has very obvious skin discolorations has been featured in advertisements such as the following ad for Puma sportswear.

Puma ad featuring Winnie Harlow

This message behind this line of appeal is NOT ‘You should be more beautiful’; Instead it is: ‘You are beautiful, and we understand that, and our product will help you keep looking good just the way you are.


3. Lifestyle & Culture Appeals

These lines of appeal focus on a lifestyle or culture. The implied message is: ‘Using our product is part of a the lifestyle you desire or part of the culture you belong to.’

I’ll introduce some of the more common lifestyle appeals—Prestige, Adventure, Exotic and Fitness appeals—but there are many other kinds of ads that make use of the lifestyle appeal.

For example, this video ad for a Hong Kong apartment complex (The Papillons) uses a lifestyle appeal, with the lifestyle being a very westernized urban yuppie lifestyle—gently cycling on riverside bicycle paths, going to coffee shops and cafés, shopping at bookstores and lounging around on the grass in a town square. Tellingly, almost all of the shots in the video are of Melbourne, Australia (and not of Hong Kong). The name of the apartment complex is a mix of English and French (‘papillons’ is the French word for ‘butterflies’), and song accompanying the video is in English and French, further adding a western flavor to the video.

The video also uses friendship, romance and family appeals, but the main line of appeal being used here is a lifestyle appeal—the message is: ‘Even though you are in a crowded city like Hong Kong, if you live in our apartment complex, you can enjoy the same leisurely lifestyle of a yuppie living in Melbourne, Australia.’

3.1 Prestige (aka snob appeal, status appeal)

Here the focus is on wealth and high social status. The implied message is that even if you are not rich, you can get a taste of that lifestyle by using the product. Wealth and class can be shown in things like activities (e.g., yachting), the models’ clothing, the props (e.g., a luxury car) and/or the choice of model (e.g., a famous rich socialite). Frequently used colors are silver and gold (which are are used to represent wealth) and greys and earthy colors (which are used to represent good taste).

Ad for India’s Golden Chariot rail line (Note the slogan ‘Travel Like Royalty’)
Image from an advertising campaign for Roger Vivier featuring model and socialite Poppy Delevingne

3.2 Adventure

The message behind the adventure line of appeal is: ‘Our product is part of an adventure-based lifestyle, so it is suitable for adventurous people, and even if you are not adventurous now, that potential is there within you and our product might bring it out.’

Toyota ad
Jeep ad (combining the adventure and nature appeals)
Mountain Dew ad (combining the adventure and friendship appeals)
Renault ad (combining the adventure and family appeals)

3.3 Exotic

Related to the adventure appeal is the exotic appeal. The implied message of this appeal is: ‘This product is related to something rather unusual and exotic, so if you buy it, that shows your have wide-ranging and adventurous tastes.’

The exotic appeal is problematic to begin with. What exactly is exotic? The word literally means ‘of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad’ as well as ‘strange in a way that is striking’. However, this idea of ‘foreignness’ and ‘strangeness’ is usually from a Western point of view. Therefore, imagery from Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Pacific islands might be considered ‘exotic’ when it is aimed at Western audiences.

In its most innocent form, this line of appeal makes use of tropical settings and colors, as in the following ads for Banana Boat sunscreen and Dubai travel packages.

Banana Boat ad
SOTC ad

Exotic animals can also be used to create an exotic feel. Gucci recently launched an advertising campaign for 2022 (the Year of the Tiger) that features real tigers and tiger-themed clothing. In a previous ad campaign, the company used flamingoes.

Gucci ad for the Year of the Tiger

Unfortunately, the exotic line of appeal can easily lead to imagery that is stereotyped and/or racist. Here is an ad using geisha imagery, but with a white model, to advertise flights to Tokyo.

Air France ad

Even worse is the following ad from Max, a footwear company. The ad features a tiny women wearing a kimono tied up in the shoelaces of a man’s shoe. It is unclear what message the advertiser is trying to send, but it does seem racist.

Max Shoes ad

The exotic appeal was quite common in the past, especially for tobacco products and cosmetics. The following vintage perfume ad is an example of that.

Rigaud vintage ad

When using the exotic line of appeal, it is easy to cross the line into racism, so it has largely fallen out of fashion as an advertising strategy.


3.4 Fitness, health & athleticism

Ads using this line of appeal focus on the product as being part of a lifestyle in which physical fitness and being healthy plays an important part. These ads feature everyday people doing a sport or being active.

Adidas ad
New Balance ad

3.5 Culture

Advertisers sometimes try to market their products to a specific cultural, ethnic or religious group. The advertisers are saying, ‘We value you and understand you, so our products are suitable for you.’ Here is a 1970s ad targeting urban black Americans that combines culture appeal and friendship appeal.

Ad by Tom Burrell (an influential figure in multicultural advertising) for Coca-Cola

The following ad from Burger King targets Muslim consumers during Ramadan. The burger eaten into a crescent moon shape refers to two things:

  1. During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to eat only at night;
  2. The crescent moon is a symbol of Islam.
Burger King ad (the cleverness of graphics means that this ad is also using a creativity line of appeal)

Both the Burger King ad and the Coca-cola ad are done in a respectful way. If created carelessly, however, advertisements based on the culture appeal can come across as being disrespectful. For example in this ad for YellowPages (a business directory app) in Britain, the text encourages people to find out about a Korean rice dish, but the illustration displays a noodle dish.

Poorly conceived YP ad

3.6 Subculture & anti-subculture

There are many smaller subcultures in society. Subcultures in the West include punk, steampunk, new age, hipster, cosplay, goth and normcore communities. Japanese subcultures include lolita, gyaru and yankee communities. The idea behind the sub-culture appeal is to associate the brand or product with some aspect of the subculture.

Let’s look at punk as an example. Punk has a clear visual aesthetic, clothing style and music, but more importantly (for the advertiser), it is associated with things like rebelliousness, youthfulness and energy.

Eurostar ad

The above ad for the Eurostar rail line does not work well. The advertiser is trying to show how the new railway is changing London. The intended message of the ad is that Eurostar is able to make even a nihilistic hardcore punk believe in the future. However, to get that message, the viewer needs to already know that ‘no future’ was a popular slogan in the late-1970s punk movement.

Image from blog.lagrandeboutique.net/en/between-punk-and-grunge-when-fashion-and-music-mix/

Here is a page from 1980s catalogue for punk-style clothing. The design of the catalogue is based on punk music fanzines (i.e., fan-made magazines) from that era.

An advertiser can also take the opposite approach and disassociate the brand/product from a subculture—in this case, the advertiser is saying: ‘You know this group of people? You hate them, right? Oh, we hate them, too! Therefore, our products are suitable for you.’ Here is a clothing retailer criticizing the hipster subculture (and clothing style) in one of its ads.

Carhartt clothing ad

The anti-subculture approach can be problematic because it is (1) based on hatred and (2) focuses on what the product ISN’T as opposed to what it IS.


4. Humor & Creativity Appeals

In ads using humor and/or creativity appeals, the focus is largely on the advertisement itself. The message is that the advertiser, like you, has a sense of humor and the ability to appreciate funny, creative and clever things. Besides sending this message, a successful creative or humorous ad can also attract more attention with eye-catching visuals, and the ad may even end up getting shared on social media.

In the following ad for JBL headphones, there is creativity in the use of the white space in the design to create the shape of headphones, and there is humor in the exaggerated faces of the screaming children and the poor teddy bear.

4.1 Humor

Here is an example of an ad using the humor line of appeal. The following ad from Foster’s, an Australian beer company, is based on a typical friendship appeal ad—one that features a few male friends presumably sitting in front of a television watching a sports match and cheering for their team. However, in this ad, one of the friends is a little different.

Foster’s ad (The kangaroo helps identify Foster’s as an Australian brand)

The following ad for Facebook mocks the fonts, futuristic imagery, graphic design and writing style of 1950s advertising. The retro style is played for laughs, so the main line of appeal being used here is humor.

1950s-style ad for Facebook

4.2 Creativity

The following ad from Heinz uses two main lines of appeal: one is the natural appeal (with the tomatoes and the garden emphasizing the product’s natural ingredients) and the other is the creativity appeal, with the artwork cleverly putting the tomatoes in the form of a bottle.

Heinz ketchup ad (compare to Heinz ad shown earlier in this article)

The above ad calls to mind the fruit-and-vegetable portraits of 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Evian’s ‘Baby Me’ commercial effectively made use of creativity, humor and music appeals.


5. Potential/Improvement Appeal

The message of ads using the potential appeal is that the thing being advertised can help you improve as a person and help you realize your potential. This appeal is often used in ads for sportswear.

Asics ad (‘I am made of more today than I was yesterday’)
Nike ad (‘Anticipate Greatness; Find Your Greatness’)
Adidas ad (‘Greater Every Run’)

In the following ad (in which the model is bursting through a wall of water on which the left are words like rage, anxiety and insecurity), the message is: ‘The physical wellbeing that our product can help you attain will lead to emotional and mental strength.’

Asics ad

The potential line of appeal was famously used to by the American military in many of its recruitment campaigns during the 1980s with the slogan ‘Be all you can be’.

US army recruitment ad

Potential appeal is sometimes combined with family appeal in advertising for children’s products (with the following ad even explicitly using the name of the appeal in its text).

Wyeth infant formula ad

Although the beauty line of appeal is also about self-improvement, it only focuses on one narrow aspect—appearance. Ads with the potential line of appeal are more about becoming a better person and reaching your potential.


6. Personal appeals (positive emotions)

These are advertisements that aim to get a positive emotional response from the viewer. The implied message of these ads is: ‘We are a caring company and we share the same values that you do, so if you are thinking about purchasing this thing that we make or are thinking about using this service we provide, well…you might consider us, right?’

6.1 Heartwarming

These are sentimental ads meant to tug at your heartstrings. Thai advertisers seem particularly good at using this line of appeal. Here is an example:

Silence of Love: Ad for Thai Life Insurance

It is difficult to be heartwarming in a single image, so this line of appeal often works best in video ads. The drawback of this line of appeal is that viewers can get so caught up in the heartwarming story that they don’t pay any attention to the company, product or service actually being advertised.

Ripple: Ad for the Singapore Community Chest

6.2 Nostalgia

This line of appeal, in which the advertisement looks fondly back at a time gone by, is often combined with a family or romance appeal.

As mentioned earlier, Solvil and Titus’s watch commercials often use this line of appeal combined with romance appeal. The purpose is to associate their product with a sense of timelessness. Here is one of their ads featuring Chow Yun-fat that leans heavily on feelings of nostalgia.

Solvil & Titus ad

The following ad from Nintendo makes effective use of nostalgia appeal (as well as family appeal and heartwarming appeal). The message here is that the company has been a part of the viewer’s life from childhood to adulthood.

Two Brothers: Nintendo ad

6.3 Empathy

In the empathy line of appeal, the advertisers are trying to show you that, like you, they are concerned for others and try to help others. For example, in the following Pedigree dog food ad, the focus is on the fact that for every purchase you make, the company’s will contribute some of the money to finding homes for stray and abandoned animals. There is a picture of an adorable dog named Echo to arouse your emotions.

Pedigree ad

To further drive home the point, the text touchingly describes how excited Echo is whenever potential adopters appear and how disappointed she is when she is not chosen.

Text from the Pedigree ad

The following is an empathy appeal ad from CARE international.

CARE ad

6.4 Social issues

Advertisers may try to associate the products with various social issues (anti-discrimination, diversity, anti-climate change, environmentalism, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, etc.). Such ads carry two messages: the first is the message associated with the cause itself (e.g., ‘We all should take care of the environment!’) and the second is the message that the company behind the advertisement shares your values and your concerns.

It is important to note that we are talking about the message the advertiser WANTS to send about its values, not the actual values of the company itself. For example, many oil companies like to present themselves as being concerned about the environment, when in reality their actual business practices are often horrible for the environment. This kind of playacting is known as ‘greenwashing’. For example, in 2019 BP (British Petroleum) ran a series of ads depicting the company as being dedicated to fighting climate change. The campaign was heavily criticized for being misleading.

BP ad
BP ad

Using the social issues line of appeal is a risky advertising strategy. One risk is that viewers may think that the advertiser is being insincere, which is what happened with that BP ad campaign.

A second risk is that the advertiser may anger some its potential customers. For example, Nike’s use of ads featuring Colin Kaepernick—the American football player who popularized the practice of kneeling while the national anthem was being played as a form of protest against racism and police brutality— angered some of those Americans who think the practice is unpatriotic.

Nike ad

Here is an inspiring Nike video ad focusing on the issue of female empowerment in Muslim societies.

Nike ad: What will they say about you?

The above ad is inspiring, but the following ad, a Women’s Day ad from Bic, is awful. The text implies that (1) it is important for a women to look youthful and (2) men are smarter than women.

Poorly conceived Bic ad for Women’s Day

This is the third major risk of the social issues line of appeal: the advertisers may show that they don’t truly understand the cause they say they are supporting.


6.5 Patriotism

Some ads appeal to the viewer’s sense of patriotism. In the following ad from Chevrolet, the text at the top refers to the American Revolution (followed by BEST) and the red bars forming the letter E represent the red stripes on the American flag

Chevrolet Ad

In the next ad, there is already patriotic branding in the product name (Canadian) and the logo (a maple leaf), but this is emphasized even further by the large ‘Made from Canada’ text and the prairie scenery.

Molson Ad

6.6 Cute/kawaii

This line of appeal typically features baby animals, mascots, cartoon characters and/or little kids. Cute things tend to have babyish features (e.g., small size, big eyes, round body) and tend to elicit feelings of amusement (They’re fun!), safety (They’re harmless!) and care (They’re helpless!). Consequently, though the cute line of appeal is especially popular when advertisers are targeting children, it can also work well with adults. For example, the mascot Kumamon features prominently in the tourism advertising of Kumamoto prefecture in Japan. The mascot is used to present the prefecture as a friendly, fun and nature-oriented tourist destination.

Kumamon in his office.
Kumamon products

7. Personal/Emotional Appeals: Negative Emotions

These lines of appeal are similar to those in the previous section in that they aim at getting an emotional response from viewers. However, the emotional responses here are negative ones like fear, shock, guilt and outrage

7.1 Fear

When using the fear line of appeal, the advertiser is trying to tell you that its products or services can protect you from something bad. The ad will show the ‘bad thing’ (e.g., a car crash) happening or about to happen or will show the results of the ‘bad thing’ (e.g., a child waiting alone at home for a parent who was killed in the car crash).

The fear appeal ad is often used by insurance companies. Here is a template that has been used by different small insurance companies (they add their own logos and text to the image).

Life insurance ad template

Fear appeal is quite commonly used in campaigns against drink driving, drug abuse and domestic violence. Here is a fear appeal ad being used in a child car safety campaign:

Child Car Safety Ad

Fear appeal ads can be very negative. For example, the video ‘Break in’ is a fear appeal ad from the Republican Party for the 2020 presidential elections in America (see video: Break in) . It depicts an elderly woman fearing a break-in but not being able to get through to the police while the text informs viewers that the competing candidate, Joe Biden, would reduce police funding if elected. The dark footage, ominous music and strange camera angles create a suspenseful, threatening mood.

Sometimes fear appeal ads cross the line into bigotry and prejudice. The most famous case is the 1988 US presidential campaign ad focusing on a black convicted criminal, Willie Horton (This is the 30-year-old Willie Horton ad everybody is talking about today). Another example of a bigoted fear appeal ad is the full-page ad that was published in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily in 2012 (‘Locust’ Ad Breaks in Apple Daily) in which Mainland immigrants and visitors are described as being locusts who are consuming Hong Kong and its resources. In Britain in 2014, the United Kingdom Independence Party ran this anti-immigrant ad:

UKIP ad

7.2 Shock

Shock appeal ads intend to grab the viewer’s attention with shocking visuals. The advertiser’s hope is that the feeling of shock will motivate the viewer to take action. One of the most commonly used kind of shock appeal ad features an image of a sickly, skeletal child accompanied by a request for a donation.

One problem with advertisers using shock appeal is that many viewers may simply not want to see such a shocking image at that time, so they may get put off by the ad.

Here is an relatively mild example of a shock appeal ad from World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The ad aims to persuade you not to buy exotic animal souvenirs when travelling.

WWF ad

When I was working with students on a fundraising project for Operation Smile China (a charity which provides free surgery for children born with cleft palates), I found that the shock approach worked well when (1) the potential donors were warned in advance (in person) that they would see disturbing images and (2) the shock appeal was combined with a solution appeal (e.g., in this case the potential donors could also see the ‘after’ photos of children who had already been treated).


7.3 Guilt

An advertisement using the guilt line of appeal tries to get the viewers to look at their own actions (e.g., wasting food) or lack of action (e.g., simply having a comfortable life and not doing anything to help while others are suffering). Compare the tone of the following ad from UNICEF to the similar (but not-guilt-focused) ad from CARE International that is shown in the empathy section.

UNICEF ad

Guilt appeal ads may also stress how inexpensive it is to do something such as support a poor child in a developing country and the ad may emphasize how little that amount is compared to what people in your country normally spend on non-essential things.


7.4 Outrage

Ads using the outrage line of appeal try the get the viewer angry enough about something to take action. For example, this ad from Moms Demand Action (an American group that would like to see better gun control laws) points out how ridiculous it is that Kinder chocolate eggs are banned in America for safety reasons (because the toys inside the eggs are considered choking hazards) while many children have access to firearms at home.

Ad from Moms Demand Action (In this ad, image of the classroom in the background has been desaturated to give image a more ominous feel)

8. Rational Appeals

While personal lines of appeal focus on evoking an emotional response, rational lines of appeal try to focus on giving a logical reason why you should prefer a particular product/brand.

The terms ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ are used very loosely here. The reason given in an ad may NOT actually make sense, may NOT be logical and may even be misleading or false; using a rational line of appeal simply means the advertiser is TRYING to present some kind of logical reason.

Many of the following rationales are based on ‘bad logic’, mistakes in reasoning known as logical fallacies (Purdue Writing Lab: Logical Fallacies).

8.1 Solution

This is a straightforward kind of appeal. The message is simply: ‘You have a problem; our product is the solution.’ In the following ad, the top two-thirds of the ad presents the problem (different kinds of allergic reactions) and the bottom third offers the solution (allergy medicines to relieve symptoms).

Activis ad

The following ad from Nike uses this line of appeal in a humorous way. The problem? Your lover has gone away and you are annoyed. The solution? Go for a run (in Nike shoes) and reduce your stress.

Nike ad (‘If something is burning you up, burn it by running’)

8.2 Bandwagon

The implied message of the bandwagon line of appeal is: ‘Our product/brand is popular. If so many people like it, it must be good.’

This way of thinking is a logical fallacy known as the bandwagon fallacy. Just because many people like something, that doesn’t mean it is good. This fallacy is also known as ‘argumentum ad populum’, ‘appeal to common belief’ or ‘appeal to the masses’.

The bandwagon appeal gets its name from the English expression ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ (which means to do something because it is already popular). The Activis allergy medicine ad featured in the previous section also makes use of this line of appeal in the text ‘Switch to New Zealand’s #1 allergy brand’.

Here is an example of a bandwagon appeal ad from Nike.

Nike ad: (‘Loving it is easy. That’s why so many people do.‘)

The ‘billions served’ text at the bottom of much of the signage at McDonald’s is also an example of this kind of appeal.

A McDonald’s sign (‘Billions and Billions Served’)

8.3 Scarcity

Ads using the scarcity line of appeal focus on how rare the product is and/or how it is only available for a limited time. The implied message is that the scarcity makes the product more valuable and therefore worth having. This line of appeal also often plays on your fear of possibly missing out on something because you were too late

However, unlike naturally scarce things like diamonds or gold, the products being advertised are usually deliberately made scarce or made to appear scarce by the advertiser.

McDonald’s frequently uses this line of appeal, with some products—like McRibs—only being served a few weeks during the year.

McDonald’s ad

Starbucks uses a similar strategy with seasonal and holiday-related drinks that are only available for a short time.

Starbucks’ ad

Besides limiting the availability of products, companies can also limit the availability of special prices. For example, to encourage shopping, many American stores offer discounts on ‘Black Friday’ (the first Friday after Thanksgiving).

Black Friday ad from Carter’s

Another form of this line of appeal is to say that the stock of something is almost sold out. This combines scarcity appeal (‘There’s almost none left!) with bandwagon appeal (‘It’s so popular!’) and fear appeal (‘If you don’t act now, you might lose out!’).

Boothstock Festival ad (‘Last Tickets; 81% Sold Out!)

8.4 Value for Money

This line of appeal has a straightforward message: ‘If you buy this product, you are getting good quality for the prices.’ The following two ads, for example, explicitly stress ‘value’ in the text of the advertisement.

Subway ad (‘Every Day Value Meal. What can $5.90 get you?’)

Sylvan ad (‘Value for Money; We are always concerned about your hard earned money!)

8.5 Authority (aka expert)

Ads using the authority line of appeal rely on an ‘expert’. The message is: ‘This expert says our product is good; therefore, it must be good.’

This way of thinking is a logical fallacy known as ‘appeal to authority’, ‘appeal from authority or ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’. It is a logical fallacy because the opinion of one person does not mean much. For example, television personality Dr. Oz (Mehmet Oz) is regularly used in advertisements for homeopathic cures; however, he has been heavily criticized by scientists and other doctors for his anti-science views (Dr. Oz Shouldn’t Be a Senator—or a Doctor).

Weightloss ad

Statistics are sometimes involved in the authority appeal (e.g., ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommend….’), but the main point is that the people referred to are experts in their field. For example, dentists are considered experts in oral hygiene.

Colgate ad (‘#1 Toothpaste Recommended by Dentists and Hygienists’)

In the past, cigarette ads often featured dentists or doctors recommending various brands. Once people became more aware of the dangers of smoking, they realized that all those ads were incredibly misleading.

Old Viceroy ad
Old Camels ad (‘More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette’)
Luckies cigarette ad (‘20,679 Physicians say Luckies are less irritating. Your throat protection against irritation against cough.‘)

Nowadays, the most effective use of the authority line of appeal is probably in the use of top athletes to promote sports brands. One would expect that a star basketball player like Michael Jordan, for example, would know a lot about basketball shoes.

Nike ad for Air Jordan shoes

8.6 Statistics

Ads using this line of appeal rely on statistics to persuade you that the product is not just of high quality, but also that this quality can be proven scientifically.

The following advertisement shows the statistics line of appeal being used in a clever way. The company’s products—popchips—and other kinds of potato chips are stacked up to create a bar chart to show that its products are lower in calories (so you can eat more of them!).

Popchips ad

This ad for Burger King implies that the new fries are relatively healthy because they have 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories.

Burger King ad (‘40% Less Fat’ 30% Less Calories’)

However a few things have been left out of the ad:

  • It doesn’t say if the portions that were compared were the same size
  • It doesn’t say how much fat or how many calories there are now (just that there has been a decrease)
  • It doesn’t say what they are comparing it to (40% less fat than what?).

The problem with using statistics in this way is that the statistics may not really reflect reality. Those Burger King fries may still be very high in fat and calories.

In the following ad, there is a claim that 9 out of 10 dentists recommend Sensodyne toothpaste. In the previous section, there is a Colgate ad saying that it is the brand most recommended by dentists. How can both claims be true?

Sensodyne ad (9 out of 10 Dentists Recommend Sensodyne Toothpaste)

The reliability of statistics depends greatly on how the advertiser gather the data. For example, if you ask ten dentists ‘Do you think people should brush their teeth without using toothpaste or should they brush their teeth with Teethwhite toothpaste?’, and you get nine of them to choose the latter option, you can say, ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommend Teethwhite toothpaste.’

Misuse of scientific-looking statistics in advertising has long been a problem. The tobacco industry, for example, for many years paid scientists to produce research that would show that smoking was relatively harmless and even beneficial in some ways (Contesting the Science of Smoking).


8.7 Celebrity endorsement

This is somewhat similar to the authority line of appeal, but the selling point is the famous person that is endorsing the product or brand. For example, here is a skincare ad featuring singer Justin Bieber (early on his career).

Proactive ad

One of the most successful celebrity endorsements is the George Foreman grill. The cooking appliance is even named after the famous retired boxer, and Foreman himself regularly participates in advertising campaigns. The slogan of the George Foreman grill—It’s so good I put my name on it!—basically sums up the implied message of this line of appeal:

George Foreman promoting the George Foreman Grill

When a celebrity like Michael Jordan appears in basketball shoe advertisements, that would be authority appeal combined with celebrity endorsement appeal, but if he appears in an ad for McDonalds, that would mainly be celebrity endorsement appeal (as he is an athlete, not a food expert). The following ad for McDonalds features Michael Jordan and is a combination of celebrity endorsement appeal, social issues appeal, empathy appeal and humor appeal.

McDonald’s ad

8.8 Testimony

A testimonial ad features a seemingly ordinary person describing how good the advertised product or service is. The implied message is: ‘This person is an ordinary person and is someone who is just like you. He/she likes our product, so you should like it, too.’ The main idea is that advertiser is trying to make its product more relatable.

California Closets ad

The following ad for Microsoft Office 2010 is a testimonial from someone who who creates testimonial videos.

Microsoft Office ad

This way of thinking—using one person’s example to prove a point—is a logical fallacy known as argument from anecdote. Just because one person had a good or bad experience, it doesn’t mean that such experiences are common.

Another issue with testimony appeal ads is that quite often the person giving the testimonial is just an actor reading from a script. Do Jennifer (California Closets) and Melissa (Microsoft Office) really exist? Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. If they do exist, are they the people in the photos? Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t.


8.9 Technical (Customer Expertise)

Ads using the technical line of appeal focus on giving technical descriptions of specifications and or functions.

There are two main messages in this line of appeal.

  • The obvious message is: ‘As you can see from this information, our product is good.’
  • The implied message is ‘We are similar. We both have expertise and know what we are talking about when it comes to this kind of product. We respect your expertise!’ For people without the technical knowlege to understand the jargon in the ad, that message becomes ‘Hey, we know what we are doing. Trust us!’

Here is a classic ad from Zenith watches with descriptions of each function of one of its watches.

Zenith ad

Here is a more up-to-date example of an ad with this line of appeal.

Steelseries Headphones ad
Detail view

Sportswear ads also sometimes make use of this line of appeal.

Asics ad

8.10 Heritage/tradition

Some ads focus on how long the company has been around or how they still keep doing things the traditional way. The idea behind this line of appeal is that if something has existed for such a long time, it must be good.

This way of thinking is a logical fallacy known as ‘appeal to tradition’ or ‘argumentum ad antiquitatem’. Just because something is a tradition, that doesn’t mean that it MUST be good.

This line of appeal seems to be becoming less common, with few companies going all out in emphasizing how old they are. When advertisers do introduce the heritage line of appeal, it tends to be more subtle. For example, this ad for the men’s fragrance Fougère Royale, a fragrance which was first produced in 1882 by Houbigant, only mentions in very small font the date the year the perfume house was established (1775) and the slogan ‘Be seduced by tradition’.

Houbigant ad (‘Be seduced by tradition’)

In the following ad for Creed’s Bois du Portugal cologne, the product’s label includes the tagline ‘From father to son since 1760’ in English and French. The slogan refers to the company’s long tradition as a family-run business (it was opened by 1760 by James Henry Creed and is now run by Oliver Creed and his son Erwin Creed), but it can also had a second meaning—the product itself is something that can be passed from generation to generation (i.e., the family line of appeal). The tree trunk is used to show the the forest-like scent of the fragrance (i.e., nature line of appeal).

Ad for Creed’s Bois Du Portugal cologne
Detail view

Similarly, the advertisements for Hong Kong sauce manufacturer Lee Kum Kee, don’t play up the company’s long tradition, but their heritage is apparent in many of the designs related to the company’s branding (e.g., web banners and product labels).

Lee Kum Kee web banner (‘Your companion for superb taste and quality through the centuries’)
Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce label (with an old-fashioned graphic and the text ‘since 1888’)

Here is a tourism ad for Italy that emphasizes the country’s historic art and architecture.

Visit Italy ad

Some heritage appeal ads focus on the founders, owners or long-time employees. This can give the appeal a more personal touch. For example, the clothing company Columbia was founded by Paul Lamfrom, and his daughter Gert (featured in the ad below) was president of the company and then chairperson of the board of directors from 1970 to 2019. The text of the following ad explains that Gert ‘transformed Columbia sportswear and the entire outdoor industry’ and even at the age of 93 is still actively involved in the company’s operations—she is a part of the company’s long tradition.

Columbia ad

Ads for Levi’s jeans used to focus on the brands origins manufacturing and supplying durable clothes to cowboys in the American west in the 19th century (as in the 1960s ad shown below), but the company does not seem to use this line of appeal anymore.

1960s Levi’s ad (‘America’s Finest Overall Since 1850’)

8.11 Modern, Novel & Futuristic

Ads using this line of appeal emphasize how new, up-to-date, modern or futuristic the product is.

In the iPhone ad shown below, the graphics emphasize the product’s sleek design. The black background and the planet-like image on the phones’ screens give it a futuristic outer space feel.

iPhone ad

Here is an ad campaign by the Tai Hing restaurant chain in Hong Kong that really goes for the futuristic look. The results are a little odd because some of the imagery is reminiscent of dystopian movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell and also because Tai Hing restaurants are very basic and traditional restaurants. The intended message seems to be: ‘No matter how wildly crazy hi-tech the world becomes, we will always be there for you‘.

Tai Hing ad
Tai Hing video ad

The following ad for Banrisul, a Brazilian bank. also uses dystopian sci-fi imagery (with the terminator-like hand holding a bank credit card).

Banrisul ad

The modern/futuristic appeal has been popular for a long time. For example, here is an ad for the 1952 Oldsmobile automobile.

Oldsmobile ad

8.12 Durability

The durability line of appeal is straightforward. Ads using this line of appeal stress how long-lasting the product it. This implies that the product is of good quality and is good value for the money (so it is related to the value-for-money line of appeal). Duracell and Energizer both use this line of appeal, and both have frequently used bunny toys to demonstrate the durability of their batteries. Here is one of Duracell’s ads:

1979 Duracell ad

9. Nature

In this line of appeal, the advertiser tries to tie the product to nature. There are all kinds of associations that nature imagery can bring: healthy, clean, fresh, environmentally friendly, down to earth, peaceful and, of course, natural. The advertiser is looking to connect the product with some of those associations.

For example, air fresheners ads often feature nature imagery to show how clean and fresh and ‘natural’ they can make your home smell. In the the following ad for Glade air freshener, in which living room furniture is in the middle of a lavender field, the imagery can also represent the scent of the product.

Glade ad

The nature line of appeal can come across as being insincere if it is used in products that aren’t very natural and/or that are bad for the environment. For example, drinking Coca-Cola is not good for the environment (Not all cans and bottles are recycled, and manufacturing and transportation processes cause pollution) and most of its ingredients (caramel color, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, caffeine) are heavily processed and/or artificially produced. Therefore, if a Coca-Cola advertisement leans heavily into the nature line of appeal, as in the following example, the ad is not going to fool anyone.

Coca-Cola Life ad (The main difference between Coca-Cola Life and regular Coca-Cola is that instead of using high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, the Life brand uses cane sugar and stevia extract)

10. Other Lines of Appeal: Brand Appeal, Music Appeal, Comparison Appeal, Plain

Here are four additional lines of appeal:

10.1 Brand Appeal

In this line of appeal, the advertiser tries to get a consumer to buy a product or use its services simply because of its brand. For example, in some Apple advertisements the message is simply: ‘Buy this Apple product because it is an Apple product’. However, this kind of strategy is only possible because Apple has already built up its brand identity over decades of advertising using other forms of appeal (e.g., lifestyle appeal, modern appeal, humor appeal etc.).

10.2 Music Appeal

In some ads, the advertiser tries to associate the brand with a specific song. The purpose may be to associate the brand with a musician (celebrity appeal), lifestyle or culture (lifestyle & culture appeals), message (social issue appeal) and/or emotion (personal appeal). A good example of how music can amplify the emotions and messages in an ad is the use of Bob Seger’s song Like a Rock in Chrevrolet commercials (1992 Truck Commercial). The Apple ad featuring Jet’s song ‘Are you gonna be my girl’ (Apple Ad) is another famous use of music in advertising. In this ad, the music is used to give the ad (and brand) a high-energy, youthful feel.

10.3 Comparison

I would argue that ‘comparison’ is a format rather than a line of appeal, but the comparison appeal is mentioned in several lists of lines of appeal, so I will include it here. The comparison approach involves directly comparing a product or brand to its competition. This is a format that uses statistics appeal, authority appeal, technical appeal and/or testimony appeal to make its point. Two famous ad campaigns that make use of the comparison approach are from Pepsi (The Pepsi Challenge) and Apple vs Microsoft ads (Mac or PC?). Here is an example of a comparison ad that focuses on the technical line of appeal.

Samsung Galaxy ad

10.4 Plain (i.e., no appeal)

These are ads that simply show the product (and might include a short description and/or the price). For example, a restaurant owner may display an ad outside the restaurant that merely shows the food without any attempt to attach any sort of personal or rational appeal to it. The ad is simply saying: ‘This is the food you can eat in our restaurant.’

However, there is one kind of personal appeal that can be related to this ‘plain’ approach. Advertisers can use a plain advertisement to try to send the message: ‘Hey, we know that you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like being manipulated. We get it; we’re just like you. And we don’t like manipulating people either, so here is a plain ad for you!’

Even the simplest of ads can have underlying messages!


Summary

Let’s round things up with a few points:

  • There are many different lines of appeal.
  • Lines of appeal CAN be abused, with advertisers attempting to manipulate your emotions or mislead you.
  • A single ad may combine a few different kinds of appeal.
  • Lines of appeal can go in and out of fashion.
  • Some lines of appeal naturally go better with certain products, services or situations.
  • The effectiveness of an advertisement may be affected by the line of appeal used, but other factors are also important. A poorly thought-out, unoriginal and poorly executed ad won’t work well no matter what line is appeal is used.

Further reading


Your Feedback

Did I leave any lines of appeal out? Can you think of an ad campaign that makes great use of a particular line of appeal? Let me know in the comments below.


~ by longzijun

writing

Return to Writing

15 Factors Affecting Newsworthiness

What makes an event newsworthy? In this article, we will look at why some events make the news while other events are ignored.

A news organization broadcast or magazine or newspaper has a lot of limitations:

  • The number of pages to fill in a newspaper or magazine
  • The number of minutes in a broadcast program
  • The number of staff members available
  • The amount of time available to put together a story for publication or broadcast.

News broadcast producers and newspaper editors, consequently, need to decide what stories to report on, what stories to put on the front page or lead off the broadcast, what stories to briefly mention and what stories to ignore completely. In other words, they need to decide which events and information are ‘newsworthy’.

Pre-reading Question: What are some of the things that make a story newsworthy?

It is important to note that the idea of ‘newsworthiness’ presented in this article is from the point of view of news producers, editors and reporters. You may think an event is very important or inspiring, and you may be right, but if that event doesn’t align with what producers or editors consider to be ‘newsworthy’, that important event may never appear in the news.

A. The 15 Factors

This list includes more than 15 factors in total, but related factors have been grouped together.

1. Impact

This factor includes things like the consequences of an event, the number of people involved and the relative importance of the story.

1.1 ConsequencesHow important is the story to the audience? What are the consequences? Will these consequences affect the lives or readers listeners and viewers? Will the story affect their decisions and beliefs? Is the story related to the public good?
1.2 Number of peopleHow many people are involved or affected? For events like protests, accidents, arrests, disease outbreaks and even things like concerts, the more people involved, the more newsworthy a story is normally perceived to be.
1.3 Relative importanceWhat else has been happening that day? If it is a slow news day, a relatively unimportant story has a greater chance of getting published.
1.4 Everyday life & niche interestsIs the story related to everyday things like home decoration, dieting, cooking, exercise and handling stress? Although none of these topics may be important to the audience as a whole, each of the topics is of interest to some people.

2. Drama

Is there conflict, scandal and/or controversy? Did a lot of people get killed or injured at the same time? News organizations thrive on negative news; there is even a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.

A news story with a negative angle (Immigrants are causing increases in unemployment!) is normally considered more newsworthy than a similar story with a positive angle (Immigrants are causing increases in job creation!).

Research has shown that:

With the rise of social media, a common strategy used by the traditional media is to provide one-sided ‘hot takes’ on a controversial issue in order to drum up views and shares. Supporters of one side will post links to the article on social media to support their views (“See, I’m right!) while outraged supporters of the other side will also share the same article to show their discontent (“Can you believe someone published this garbage?”).

3. Timeliness

This factor involves recency and duration.

3.1 RecencyHow recent is the event? If an event happened within the past 24 hours it has a greater chance of being reported, especially when it comes to newspaper reporting. This is because newspapers typically operate on a 24-day cycle (Timing Is Everything in a News Cycle).
3.2
Time of day
Even the time of day can have an effect. You may notice that when a government department has bad news, it may hold a press conference at an inconvenient time like Friday evening. A press conference at that time means that it is too late for the story to be included in the evening and late news television broadcasts that day, and it would be a mad rush for editors to try to include the story in the Saturday edition of a newspaper. By the time the next day rolls around, the story has already become less ‘timely’ and it may be pushed off the front page or even pushed out of the news altogether. Online news and 24-hour news networks limit this news-killing strategy somewhat, but it is still quite effective.
3.2 DurationHow does the event unfold? Is it a single event (like a terrorist attack) or does it take place during a long period of time (like automobile deaths during an entire year)? If something is spread out over a long period of time, that can make it seem less newsworthy although its actual impact may be far greater than the effects of a one-off event.

4. Proximity

Is what happened close (geographically) to the audience? A massive automobile accident in your city might get reported in the local news, but is unlikely to make the national news.

5. Perceived Importance

These factors are related to how prominent the people, places and/or events are perceived to be? This can involve things like celebrity, fame, cultural proximity, race and class. A key word here is ‘perceived’. Is a celebrity’s private struggles really more important than some random person’s? No. but they are PERCEIVED to be more important.

5.1 FameAre the people involved celebrities? Is the place famous? For example, the fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris in 2019 (the photo above is by Adam Nossiter and Aurelien Breeden) attracted a lot of attention because the cathedral is a world-famous monument in a world-famous city. If something happens in a well-known city like New York, it is more likely to catch the international media’s attention than if it happens in a smaller city—like Albany or Rochester—in the same state.
5.2 Cultural proximityMost news organizations in developed countries like the US tend to do very little reporting on news from the Global South (e.g., Africa, South America, Central America, South Asia and Southeast Asia). To many Americans, this huge region is considered not only distant In terms of geography, but also less similar culturally and as being less important. Therefore, a bomb attack in Paris will likely get a lot more coverage in the American media than a similar bomb attack in Nairobi.
5.3 Class, race & social statusRelated to the above is the issue of class and race. For example, if a wealthy, white doctor in an American city goes missing, that is much more likely to make the local news than if a homeless black person suffers the same fate. In the Hong Kong news media, something that happens in America or England is much more likely to be reported than a similar event in countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia even though Hong Kong is close geographically to those Southeast Asian countries AND is home to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from those countries.

6. Convenience

How easy is it to get the information and create the news article or segment? Can the reporter just slightly adapt a report from a press agency like the Associated Press? Is there a press conference that makes it easy to get soundbites? Is there a press release package that has an article basically ready for printing with just a few minor changes? Is there an ‘expert’ on hand to provide information? Has someone provided an eye-witness or do the reporters have to track down potential witnesses?

‘Convenience’ is often left out of lists of factors affecting newsworthiness because it is unrelated to the actual story. However, the ease with which an article or broadcast news segment can be produced can greatly affect whether or not a story gets covered.

7. Human Interest

Does the story appeal to our emotions?

7.1 HeartwarmingIs it heartwarming, touching, cute or amusing?
7.2 PathosDoes the story make the audience feel sad? Is it particularly heart-wrenching?
7.3. That time of yearIs the story related to an upcoming holidays like Independence Day, Christmas or New Year’s Day?
7.4 The extremeIs the event especially horrifying, unique, mysterious or odd?
7.5 Visual interestAre there eye-catching photos or video footage of the event?

8. Rarity

How uncommon is the story? Is the thing featured in the story the biggest, smallest, most dangerous, newest or the first its kind? Something unusual (like a total solar eclipse) or the first of its kind is often considered newsworthy. For example, when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, that was a massive news story. Subsequent lunar landings, however, seemed less newsworthy and received less and less media attention as the years went by.

9. Trendiness

Is the story related to something—like the MeToo movement or the Extinction Rebellion—that is receiving widespread media coverage or is creating a buzz on social media?

The effect of trendiness on newsworthiness pre-dates social media. For example, during the early 1980s, there was a period in which stories about supposed Satanic rituals were popular in the American media.

If all the competitors are running with a story, can a news organization afford NOT to report on a story and run the risk of looking out-of-touch?

Will reporting the story keep a news organization ahead of its competitors? If a reporter can provide a ‘scoop’ (i.e., being the first to publish a story), that is a strong incentive to publish the story as quickly as possible. It can help make a news organization seem to be more authoritative—it sets the trends rather than just follows them.

10. Support for the Community

Can the story help the news organization connect with the community, charities and the local arts scene? It is good for business if the media organization is perceived as an integral part of the community. Most local newspapers will support the local arts scene by publishing reviews of movies, concerts, plays and art shows. In some cases, the articles help readers make choices about how they will spend their time, but sometimes (e.g., a review for a one-off performance of a play or concert), the review just lets people know about what is going on in their city and provides support for local culture.

11. Continuity

Does the story follow-up on something that was just published? Is the story one that gets reported from time to time? Can anything be recycled from previous reports? Is the story about something the audience is familiar with?

Familiarity is generally a good thing when it comes to newsworthiness, but if something happens again and again, it can lead to over-familiarity and it will start to get ignored. For example in the US, there are a few hundred mass shootings (in which four or more people are killed) each year. The vast majority of these will not make the national news. Similarly, during the American occupation of Iraq, there were a few hundred terrorist attacks every year in that country. Only the most extreme of these would ever be reported by international media.

Recurring stories are similar stories that get printed or broadcast periodically. For example, every couple of years Hong Kong newspapers will run stories on things like cage homes and teen suicide. The teen suicide rate has been relatively constant for many years (Intuitive guide to alleviating depression and suicides in Hong Kong). Of course, some years it is a little lower and some years a little higher. If it is a year in which the rate is higher, you will likely see a ‘teen suicides are increasing’ story. Similarly cage homes—small apartments in which the rooms are subdivided into tiny cubicles— have been around for many years. They get reported on from time to time, but nothing ever really changes.

12. Unambiguity

Is the story very clear or can it be made to look very clear? The protests in Hong Kong in 2019 were very complex (The Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020), but were usually presented in a simple way (i.e., youth fighting for freedom). In contrast, the much larger farmers’ protests in India (which may have been the largest protests in history) were largely ignored by the mass media in Western countries at least partly because it was difficult to briefly and clearly explain what the farmers were fighting for. You can try reading this Wikipedia article and see if you can fully understand the farmers complaints: 2020–2021 Indian farmers’ protest. The story of the farmers’ protests also had the added hurdles of taking place in the Global South (Factor 5.2: Cultural Proximity), having strong ties to socialism and communism (Factor 13: Consonance) and being against the government of an American ally (Factor 14: Adversaries and allies).

13. Consonance

Does the narrative of the story match the beliefs that are predominant in that society? Examples for the American mass media would include beliefs like:

  • Anyone can get rich if they work hard enough (e.g., the rags-to-riches story, the American dream)
  • An underdog can prevail with enough grit and perseverance
  • The higher you climb, the further you fall (e.g., the downfall of a celebrity)
  • Communism is bad and capitalism is good
  • Our country and its culture and political systems are exceptional and deserve to be emulated (i.e., American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny)

The opposite of consonance is dissonance. If a story is dissonant—that is, it is going against a society’s commonly held beliefs—it may be less likely to make the news.

14. Adversaries & Allies

Does the story make political adversaries, an enemy state or a competitor look bad? If so, that can make the story more ‘newsworthy.’ During the 1980s, the American media had a lot of negative coverage about Japan (a rising economic competitor) and the Soviet Union (a military and geopolitical rival). In the 2000s, that negative focus switched to Islamic countries. For the past few years, the focus has been on China.

If the story makes an ally look bad, that can lead to the story going unreported.

Similarly, if a news story makes an adversary look good; news organizations may just kill the story or try to find a way to put a negative spin on it. For example, the American public broadcasting network PBS produced a documentary on poverty alleviation in China (entitled China’s War on Poverty), but it was quickly pulled from the network. The stated reason for removing the documentary was that there were concerns about editorial independence, but the American producer of the film stated that he had total independence. The more likely reason is that the film presented a geo-political adversary in an overly favorable light.

15. Bias & Influence

Does the news organization have an editorial bias? Does the story fit with the personal biases of the writers, editors and/or owners? Do the advertisers or sponsors have any influence? Is there a danger of getting sued if the story is published? Are the reporters or editors working with members of the intelligence community? This issue of influence is discussed on greater detail in my article The Roles of the News Media.


Which of the above factors are most important when it comes to newsworthiness? The following two kinds of stories would definitely be considered newsworthy: (1) a single incident involving a lot of deaths that very recently occurred in a famous place that is not part of the Global South and (2) the election/selection or death of a head of state of a very influential country. What other events would you consider to be ‘must-print’ stories?

Unfortunately, many of the 15 factors mentioned above can have negative effects such as:

  • important stories going unreported,
  • unethical reporting
  • long terms negative effects on the audience

B. The Ignored Stories

A lot of important events can get unfairly buried in the news because they are not considered newsworthy. In Canada, for example, there is a stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert in the province of British Columbia that is now known as the Highway of Tears (www.highwayoftears.org). Since 1970, it is estimated that over 80 women have been killed or have gone missing there.

Some of the victims of the Highway of Tears

Three serial killers have been convicted as well as a few solo murderers. That has all the makings of a newsworthy story: mass murder! multiple serial killers! However, it wasn’t until 2002, three decades after the first known murders, that the cases made the news in major urban newspapers in western Canada. That was when a young woman named Nicole Hoar was murdered. Why weren’t the other murders and disappearances newsworthy? The following factors were likely at play:

  • Factor 5.3 (Race, class & social status): More than half of the victims were indigenous women and many were quite poor, which is why many of them were hitchhiking or walking along the highway when they disappeared.
  • Factor 3 (Timeliness): In many of the cases, the murders were discovered only after human remains were found. Also, it wasn’t a single event; the cases were spread out over decades.
  • Factor 6 (Convenience): It was not easy to get information and police were not actively seeking media coverage.
  • Factor 11 (Unambiguity): A missing person’s case has many loose ends.  

At the moment, a similar kind of case is playing out in Canada. There are now many news reports of mass graves of hundred of indigenous children being found at Canada’s notorious residential schools (all of which had finally closed by 1997). It is not like parents hadn’t noticed that their, children who had been taken away from them, never returned home. It is not like there were no ‘graduates’ of the school who had witnessed systematic abuse. The media at the time simply wasn’t interested.

Entire continents are also largely ignored. In the US, for example, there is very little in the news about the Global South (e.g., Africa, South America, South Asia and Southeast Asia). And the stories that do get published tend to be to reconfirm existing beliefs (e.g., Western Media use of the Third World Construct: A Framing Analysis of its Validity). For example, Africa is often presented as being all warlords and famines:

Similarly, India is presented as a filthy slum; China is presented as being full of impoverished, brainwashed and oppressed people; and South America is presented as being awash in drugs and corruption. 

During early 2022, there were four major international conflicts going on (Russia/Ukraine, Saudi Arabi, Yemen, US/Syria, US/Somalia). In an analysis of the coverage of these conflicts in the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, independent reporter Alan MacLeod found that the five news organizations published 1298 articles about the Ukraine conflict and a total of 3 articles on the other three conflicts (www.mintpressnews.com/ukraine-russia-war-media-bias-study/279847/ )

After Russia invaded Ukraine several, reporters commented on how the war was so shocking because it affected Europeans:

  • “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know like Iraq or Afghanistan, This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect or hope that it’s going to happen.” (Charlie D’Agata, CBS News)
  • “What is compelling is that just looking at them, the way they’re dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa; they look like any European family that you would live next door to.” (Peter Dobble, Al-jazeera)
  • “It’s one thing for sarin gas to be used on people in far away Syria who are Muslim and of a different culture. What is Europe going to do when it is on European soil, done to Europeans?” (Julie Loffe, CNN)
  •  “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” (Ukraine’s former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, in a BBC interview)
  • “It just occurred to me that this is the first major war between civilized nations in my lifetime.” (Michael Knowles, Daily Wire)
  • “Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria. These are refugees from neighboring Ukraine….These are Christians, they’re white.” (Kelly Cobiella NBC News)
  • “And this is not a developing Third World nation. This is Europe.” (Lucy Watson, ITV news).

In those comments you can see how they view the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as being more important than conflicts in Asian or Africa simply because the people involved are Europeans. You can see video clips of the above quotes in Alan Macleod’s Twitter thread: twitter.com/AlanRMacLeod/status/1497981855764824065

Another thing that often gets ignored is what happens to people after the news media has moved on from the main story. Large mass shootings and natural disasters are frequently reported, but in most instances, after a few days, the news media will have moved on and the stories of the victims and survivors are ignored.  Here is an amazing and heartwarming video about a woman who survived the Fukushima tsunami. Such new stories are quite rare in the mainstream media.

C. Unethical Reporting

The factors affecting newsworthiness can also lead to unethical reporting if editors and reporters put ‘newsworthiness’ ahead of accuracy.

One obvious example of this is the case in which journalist Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her article on an eight-year-old heroine addict; and it was later discovered that the story was completely made-up.

Another case of unethical reporting occurred in Hong Kong in 1998 and involved how the Apple Daily newspaper covered a murder-suicide case in which a woman had thrown her two young children from an apartment building before committing suicide. Apparently not satisfied with the ‘drama’ level of the story, the newspaper paid the widower of the woman, Chan Kin-hong, to pose for pictures with two prostitutes and then ran a front page story about how unremorseful he was. In essence, they simply fabricated a story in order to make the tragedy more sensational and dramatic.

These are just two cases. There are many others:

D. Negative Effects of Negative News

As mentioned earlier, news organizations tend to focus on conflict, scandal and death. How does this focus affect consumers of the news? Research has shown that long-term effects or reading large amounts of bad news can lead to anxiety, depression and an overall pessimistic review of the world (e.g., You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?) and can lead people to developer negative attitudes towards groups that are often stereotyped in the news  (e.g., Effects of Long-Term Exposure to News Stereotypes on Implicit and Explicit Attitudes and Impact of the Media). 

E. My Personal Experiences

In this section, I will briefly describe three news stories that involved me and explain what made them newsworthy.

1. Child & Santa

Here is my first appearance in the news. What are the factors that made this photo and caption newsworthy?

Photo from the Ottawa Citizen showing me taking candy from Santa Clause.

This photo was likely in the news because:

  • Factor 7.3 (That time of year): It is just before Christmas, so a ‘kid-with-Santa’ photo is newsworthy
  • Factor 6 (Convenience): I was visiting my grandmother, who lived near the main offices of the newspaper. It is likely that an editor just told a photographer to ‘go out and get a kid-with-Santa photo’ and that particular Santa was the closest one to the newspaper offices.
  • Factor 8: (Rarity): The surname ‘Noel‘ literally means ‘Christmas’ (as in the the Christmas carol The First Noel). What an amazing coincidence—a Christmas photo of a kid named Noel! However, that is not my surname. I don’t know if the reporter or editor simply made it up or whether my grandmother did (she was whimsical). In any case, I learned from a very early age (one-and-a-half, not two), that newspapers were careless with facts.   

2. Protesting

My second appearance in the news, was on a national television broadcast in Canada. The news story featured footage of me participating in a protest in London, England in 1984. The protest was against plans to have the American military station nuclear missiles on the British Isles. I was filmed carrying a Canadian flag along with another person. That protest—and shot of me—made the news in Canada because

  • Factor 1.2 (Number of people): It was a very large protest.
  • Factor 5.1 (Fame): It was in a famous city.
  • Factor 5.2 (Cultural proximity): England has close ties to Canada.
  • Factor 1.1 (Consequences): The video footage of the Canadian flag was helpful in creating the feeling that the story was important to the Canadian audience.

3, A Student Project

In 2003, When I was teaching at City University of Hong Kong, one of my duties was to supervise groups of students working on their Final Year Project in an English for Professional Communication Program (Higher Diploma). For their projects, students would work with companies or non-governmental organizations to conduct fundraising or public relations campaigns. One of my student groups ran a highly successful PR campaign for the Chiropractic Doctors’ Association of Hong Kong. The students conducted research on two things that might affect the health of young children: carrying heavy school bags and having poor posture when using the computer. 

After completing the research, the students organized a press conference at the university to announce the findings. Their research was reported in the evening new and late news broadcast of all of Hong Kong’s television stations at the time (TVB Pearl, TVB Jade, ATV World, ATV Home), was the lead story on the TVB broadcasts, was featured in more than a dozen newspapers and even was reported by a radio station in Singapore.         

Why did that news story—which was a student research project—get so much attention in the media?

  1. Factor 1.3 (Relative Importance): It was a slow news day, and the students deliberately chose to schedule the press conference on Monday, a day of the week when governments and businesses in Hong Kong tend NOT to have press conferences. 
  2. Factor 3 (Timeliness): It was newly released research, so it was timely.
  3. Factor 6 (Convenience): The students made it very convenient for reporters. First, there was a press conference at which chiropractic doctors were on hand to explain the data and answer questions. Second, the students included a press release (hard and soft copies) including the original report, a summary that could form the basis of an article and relevant graphics. Third, the time of the press conference was convenient for reporters. The press conference was in the middle of the morning, so members of the press had enough time for to get ready before attending and lots of time afterward to prepare a story for the evening news or the next day’s paper.  
  4. Factor 1 (Impact): It was of some concern to many readers—especially those with young children
  5. Factor 2 (Drama): The story was negative in tone, The research findings suggested that around a third of children were at risk of developing spine problems.
  6. Factor 13 (Consonance): The story supported a larger narrative—that children in Hong Kong are overworked and stressed out.
  7. Factor 11 (Continuity): It was a recurring story—every few years in Hong Kong the issue of young children struggling with heavy school bags gets reported in the media.    
  8. Factor 12 (Unambiguity): It had an unambiguous message, sort of—children need to carry lighter loads and parents should also consider buying backpacks that are designed to distribute weight more evenly. On the surface, the message was unambiguous, but in fact the story did have a lot of ambiguity. The research was a student project, so there were of course questions about the reliability of the data. However, this was not mentioned in any of the news reports. Instead, the reporters all went with phrases like “Researchers at City University today reported that….” Also not mentioned was the fact that the research was sponsored by a manufacturer of ‘spine-friendly’ backpacks, so there was a potential conflict of interest. There was ambiguity, but it could be easily swept under the rug.  

If any one of the above factors were missing, I doubt the story would have received as much media exposure as it did.

On the one hand, I was proud of the hardworking students (they had also developed a teaching program that was introduced to tens of thousands of primary school students). On the other hand, I was disturbed at how the news organizations presented the report as being written by ‘university researchers’.

F. Conclusion

By now, you should have a good understanding of the many reasons that can lead to a news story getting (or not getting) media exposure and how these factors can distort the news and can even distort our perceptions of the world around us.

The subjective nature of ‘newsworthiness’ means that it is important for us, as consumers of the news, to

  • Question the news that is being presented to us and
  • Seek out a wide range of different sources of news (from large news companies to local publishers to independent news organizations to social media).

G. Research Questions

Newsworthiness lends itself to quantitative research. If you interested in this topic, you can create a checklist of factors affecting newsworthiness and try to determine which factors occur most frequently in news publications or broadcasts. You can:

  • Look at one publication or broadcast news program news and examine all the stories published or broadcast within a specific time frame
  • Compare two different news organizations (e.g., CNN and Fox News)
  • Compare the newsworthiness factors of a publication in a Western liberal democracy to the newsworthiness factors of a publication (e.g., Pravda, The People’s Daily) in a country where the media is more controlled (see my article: The Roles of the News Media)
  • Compare the print media to broadcast media

Unfortunately, this kind of approach wouldn’t be able to answer the questions ‘Which stories tend to go unreported and why?’ For that, you would probably need to do qualitative research—interviewing staff members of news organizations and asking them which stories they chose to drop or ignore altogether and why.


~ by longzijun

writing

Return to Writing

The Roles of the News Media

What is the role of the news media in society?

The answer to this question depends on the society we are talking about. There is no one universal model of the news media. In the article, I will look at five main models:

  • The Free Press Model
  • The Propaganda Model
  • The Commercial Model
  • The Combined Model
  • The State Model

1. The Free Press Model

Photo of a reporter, Umbrella Movement protests (Hong Kong, 2014)

To start with let’s look at the Free Press Model—it is considered the ideal for the news media in western liberal democracies. In this model, the news media typically has five main roles: 

  1. Information Provider: To give information to the public so that people know what is going on in their community, their nation and around the world. People can then use this information to make better choices. For example, before an election, people can learn more about the platforms of different politicians, and this can help them vote more wisely.
  2. Information Gatekeeper: To serve as a kind of information gatekeeper. News organizations can filter out false information, gossip and harmful propaganda and instead publish information that is based on fact. With the rise of social media, this gatekeeper role is even more important as news organizations can help people sort through the massive amounts of often contradictory information they receive online.  
  3. Advocate for Change: To push for social, economic and political change. The media can shine a light on problems faced by society—like racism or homelessness—and suggest ways to solve those problems. The press may thus have an influence on government policy.
  4. Watchdog: To serve as a watchdog—to keep an eye out for abuses of power. The media can expose unfair business practices or violations of rights, and it can help monitor the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. In this role, the media serves as part of the system of checks and balances that is considered essential to the western concept of democracy.  
  5. Community Platform: To provide a voice to the community. News organizations can give readers, listeners and viewers a platform to actively comment on current affairs. This can be done through things like interviews with members of the public, call-in radio shows, letters to the editor and online comments. 

A sixth role that is often mentioned is entertainment, but for this article I will focus on the rive roles listed above.

In order to fulfill the five roles of the press in this model—information provider, information gatekeeper, advocate of change, watchdog and community platform—effectively, the news media must have a few qualities, namely:

  • The reporting must be accurate and impartial; and information should be confirmed and fact-checked before being presented to the public
  • There must be editorial independence
  • There must be a clear distinction between different kinds of content such as fact-based articles, opinion-based editorials and sponsored content.
  • Opportunities to express ideas should be given to different voices and to people that are representative of society as a whole

2. Influences on the News Media

Photo of a reporter, Umbrella Movement protests (Hong Kong, 2014)

The Free Press Model, however, is very simplistic. It assumes that the news media is mostly free from outside influence. In reality, there are many forces that can shape and influence the news. 

  • Owners
  • Advertisers & sponsors
  • Sources (press agencies, businesses and government departments, intelligence services, other media outlets, think tanks, human rights groups & other non-governmental organizations, eyewitnesses & experts)
  • Financial & logistical considerations
  • Flak
  • Cultural & ideological narratives
  • Audience expectations
  • Social media & other competitors
  • Personal biases

2.1 Owners

First, there is ownership. Media owners can include:

  • Multinational corporate conglomerates like Warner Brothers or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps
  • National media networks like the Sinclair Broadcast Group in America
  • Media moguls like Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong and Viscount Rothermere in Britain
  • Even religious sects like the Falun Gong, which publishes the Epoch Times and runs NTD (as well as a host of other outlets)

Many news organizations do have clear editorial biases. Fox News in the US, for example, was founded to provide a voice for American conservatives. MSNBC, on the other hand, appeals more to American liberals. 

Media owners have power over things like hiring practices and editorial policies of the news organizations they control. And if they want, they can order a particular story to be published or abandoned. For example, here is a compilation of local news broadcasters in the Sinclair Broadcast Group parroting a political message from the owners:

Governments can also be media owners. For example, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are run by the US federal government. The majority of funding for the BBC comes directly from British taxpayers via a television licensing system, but it is the British government that controls the licensing system and appoints the head of the BBC.  

2.2 Advertisers and Sponsors

Second, there are the advertisers and sponsors. If a news organization heavily depends on advertising and sponsorship revenue, major advertisers and sponsors can also influence what stories get printed, what stories get buried and how certain issues are reported. Here is one example: In 1997, at the request of one its major advertisers—Monsanto—Fox News pressured two of the reporters at its affiliate station WTVT-13 to change their story on one of Monsanto’s growth hormones and add false information to the planned article. When the two reporters—Jane Akre and Steve Wilson— repeatedly refused, they were fired and the story was killed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Akre).

The influence of advertisers on the media can be more subtle. In a study of the news media in Argentina, researchers found that as government spending on advertising in newspapers increased, the amount of front-page space given to coverage of government scandals decreased (www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w15402/w15402.pdf). Similarly, in another study, it was found that news coverage about automobile recalls from given manufacturers decreased when advertising spending from those manufacturers increased (www.eui.eu/Documents/DepartmentsCentres/Economics/Seminarsevents/Durante-paper.pdf). In both of these cases, newspapers still covered negative news involving their advertisers; they just did it less frequently or less noticeably.

Another way in which advertisers influence the news is in the form of advertorials. These look like the publication’s articles, but are actually advertisements. Usually, this is acknowledged as an ‘advertorial’ somewhere on the page, but it is not always obvious.

Then there is crowdfunding. Nowadays, there are quite a few crowdfunded media organizations that pride themselves on their independence. However, their financing largely relies on meeting the expectations of their audience. If the Grayzone starts publishing articles in favor of American interventions overseas or if the Hong Kong Free Press starts publishing articles critical of Hong Kong protesters, they will likely see much of their funding disappear. 

2.3 Sourcing

A third influence is related to sourcing, that is, where the news actually comes from. Much of the news comes from a variety of sources, including: 

Press agencies
These companies provide licensed content that can be directly inserted into a publication or that can be combined with information from local reporters. The largest press agencies—United Press International (UPI), the Associated Press (AP), Agence France Press (AFP) and Reuters—provide around 90% of international news in a typical newspaper. Of course, when looking at press agencies, you also need to consider the issues of ownership and bias.

A group called Swiss Propaganda Research investigated how, during a two-week period, nine leading newspapers from Germany, Switzerland and Austria reported on the conflict in Syria. The researchers found that out of 381 articles published during those two weeks, not a single article was the result of direct investigation by any of the newspapers’ reporters. Instead, 78% of articles were based whole or in part from press agency reports (swprs.org/the-propaganda-multiplier/). The researchers also found that the reporting was biased. 82% of all opinion pieces and interviews provided by the press agencies were in favor of US and NATO intervention, and when the negative word ‘propaganda’ was mentioned it was only used to describe information from the opposing side.

The big issue with press agencies is that because their articles are published in thousands of newspapers, any inaccurate and/or biased material produced by press agencies can end up being quickly spread around the world.

Government departments, major corporations and local businesses
These sources can provide press briefings and press releases or can just insert their content directly into news publications in the form of sponsored articles known as advertorials. Here is one example from the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper). An opinion piece suggesting Reading, England as a potential destination for Hong Kong holders of the BNO passport is written by Raymond Chong, the managing director of a brokerage, Star Property Agency, that (what a surprise!) just happens to be selling property in Reading to Hong Kong people. This is a case of a company directly inserting favorable content into a news publication.

Screen shot of headline
The headline
Screenshot of the writer's company's website
The writer’s company website

That is a very small-scale case, though. Governments can spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to influence the media. For example, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill (The Strategic Competition Act of 2021) in which 300 million dollars per year for five years is to be devoted to countering Chinese influence, with 1/3 of that to be devoted largely to spreading negative media coverage about China. Here is a clause from the bill that specifies how a part of the money will be used:

There is authorized to be appropriated, for each of the fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for the United States Agency for Global Media, $100,000,000 for new programs to support local media, build independent media, combat Chinese disinformation inside and outside of China, invest in technology to subvert censorship, and monitor and evaluate these programs.

How would this money be spent? Here is one example: The Herald, a newspaper in Zimbabwe, reported on a program run by Information by Development Trust (IDT) and sponsored by the American Embassy in Harare. Participating journalists were instructed on how to produce negative news stories about Chinese investment in Zimbabwe and were promised 1000 USD for each negative story produced (US Plans to Discredit Chinese Investment Unmasked).

This kind of government propaganda campaign is typically conducted through government-funded media organizations (e.g. Radio Free Asia), intelligence agencies, non-governmental organizations and think tanks.

Intelligence services
Spy agencies can supply a mixture of real and false news and can also directly recruit reporters and editors as assets. In a 1977 article in the Rolling Stone, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stated that at that time, around 400 reporters were doubling as operatives for the CIA. Their investigations confirmed the role of American intelligence agencies in manipulating the media that came to light during the hearings of the Church Committee (AKA the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) in 1975. In this video interview from 1983, former CIA agent John Stockwell describes how he oversaw media campaigns for the CIA. The interview is from ‘Vietnam Reconsidered, Lessons from the War at the University of Southern California, USC’. The part on the media begins at 1:50.

Other media outlets
Smaller newspapers often use material from more prestigious papers such as the New York Times or government-run organizations like Radio Free Asia.

Think tanks, human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations
These organizations usually claim to be independent, but they are often heavily funded by governments, defense contractors, other major corporations and government-funded organizations like America’s National Endowment for Democracy. For example, the ‘independent’ Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is funded mainly by the Australian Department of Defense with additional funding coming from entities such as the US State Department, the US Department of Defense and NATO as well as weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northropp Grumman, Naval Group Australia and Thales. You can see this thread on Twitter for a look at some of the funding behind NGOs that frequently appear as news sources: twitter.com/catcontentonly/status/1343282499833765890.

Eyewitnesses and experts
Some eyewitnesses and experts are credible and impartial, while others and are fake or biased. The most famous example of a fake eyewitness is Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ, who in 1990 tearfully testified that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers in a Kuwaiti hospital stealing incubators and leaving premature babies on the floor to die. Her testimony, which was supported by Amnesty International, was used to encourage support for the American invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t until 1992 that it was discovered that she was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to America and that her testimony was part of a public relations campaign run by the American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. There was no evidence that any incidents like that had actually happened and Amnesty International issued a retraction.

By the time Nayriah’s identity had been revealed and her testimony debunked, the First Gulf War had ended.

Another famous case of fake eye-witnesses is Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, a blogger who went by the username A Gay Girl in Damascus and who advocated for increased civil and political freedom for Syrians. She was interviewed by media outlets such as CNN for her insights as a young openly gay woman living in an Islamic country. In 2011, someone claiming be her cousin reported that she had been kidnapped by government agents. Her kidnapping prompted an international outcry; however, it turned out that the blogger was, in reality, Tom McMaster, a middle-aged, straight American man living in England.

Screen shot of the Gay Girl in Damascus story

Similarly, in 2020 it was revealed that Kong-Tsung Gan, who had claimed to be someone of Chinese ancestry who had grown up in Hong Kong and who had been interviewed by numerous media outlets for his views on Hong Kong politics and protests, was an American (and very Caucasian) man called Brian Kern (www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/11/221905/Unmasked-Chinese-fake-quits-HK—but-keeps-phony-persona).

Then there is the case of the Uyghur activist, Rushan Abbas, who is a completely real person. However, she has worked for the American military as a consultant at the notorious Guantanamo Bay site as well as working for various other American government departments and intelligence agencies. Can she really be considered an impartial and credible source? (www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/e9ad4n/i_am_rushan_abbas_uyghur_activist_and_survivor_of/)?

Eyewitness evidence and expert testimony can be very compelling, but it is clear that news organizations are often not very careful when it comes to confirming the identities, backgrounds, motivations and stories of their experts and eyewitnesses.


All these different kinds of news sources can be linked together like a kind of chain. For example, a small local newspaper in Cleveland might run an article that is mainly based on an Associated Press report of a Radio Free Asia interview with a representative of a think tank that is primarily funded by the American government, with the interview being set up at an event organized by the US State Department.

This use of regurgitated content from third-party sources can help make the news gathering process more cost effective, but it can also lead to a lot of propaganda and false information getting published.

The use of chains of third-party sources also means that potential conflicts of interest often go undeclared and unnoticed. For example, in the article ‘Rappler: Philippines orders shutdown of Maria Ressa’s critical news site’ (www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-61976456), the BBC reports that a newspaper in the Philippines was ordered to close because its funding from the Omidyar Network (a company set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar) was alleged to be in violation of the country’s media laws. In the article, the BBC cites two sources to highlight how ‘unfree’ the Filipino news media is. The two sources are Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which is partially funded by . . . Pierre Omidyar, and Humans Right Watch (HRW), which receives regular donations from . . . Pierre Omidyar. Nowhere in the article are the links to Omidyar and RWB and HRW mentioned. There are no other sources (besides Rappler staff) included in the article.

2.4 Financial & Logistical Considerations

One important factor that should not be overlooked when discussing the news media is the financial pressure involved with running a news organization. Any measure that can save time and money has to be considered, and this can have a great effect on sourcing. For example, if you take a government press release about a new policy and edit it slightly, you can produce a news story in a few minutes. If the government then holds a press conference, you can send a small news crew there to get a quick soundbite. A national newspaper or TV network will have staff in the nation’s capital, so everything can be done in a few hours. However, verifying all those pesky details in the press release might take days or even weeks or months. And interviewing people who would be affected by that new policy—people who might be several hundreds of kilometers away in a remote town—can be time-consuming and expensive. As a result, in this case, when the story is finally put together and published, it will likely favor the government’s point of view simply because of how much easier it was to get information from the government.

Similarly, many local newspapers have a reporter that focuses on local crime. The reporters on the crime beat will have established relationships with police officers and police spokespersons, so they will normally get information from these sources first, and then it is up to the reporters and their editors to decide how much time and effort will go into doing things like tracking down and interviewing eye-witnesses. In many cases, the decision will simply be to save time and money and go with the version of events presented by police. In this way, the basic logistics of running a news organization can affect what stories get told and who gets to tell them. 

Financial considerations and logistics can therefore also affect sourcing. It is often more cost-effective for news organizations to simply run what they get from their usual sources and press agencies without having their own reporters fully investigate the story. 

2.5 Flak      

A fifth influence is ‘flak’. If any individual or group is powerful enough to cause problems for the media organization by suing it, removing its license or organizing boycotts, editors may think twice before publishing anything negative about that person or group. Noam Chomsky calls this kind of threat ‘flak.’ One good example of this is the pressure from tobacco company Brown & Williamson (B&W) on television network CBS to kill off a planned story on the company’s use of ammonia to increase the addictive effects of nicotine in its cigarettes (www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1996/05/wigand199605). CBS did kill the story at first, but the story was eventually published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and then by CBS itself. B&W’s efforts to kill the story formed the basis of the film The Insider. One important thing to note in this case is that B&W did not actually threaten to sue CBS. CBS killed the story simply because its legal team feared that there COULD be a lawsuit if the story was broadcast.

Flak can also come in the form of fear of legal persecution. For example, in 2022. Alina Lipp, a German reporter covering crimes by Ukrainian forces against citizens in the Donbass, a region consisting of two republics that broke away from Ukraine in 2014, was notified by German authorities that she would be subject to up to three years imprisonment if she returned to Germany. The punishment is for ‘supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine’ and she would not be allowed to state her case in court proceedings (www.indiatoday.in/world/story/-german-journalist-detention-ukrainian-crimes-donbass-1973896-2022-07-10).

2.6 Cultural & Ideological Narratives

A sixth kind of influence concerns the beliefs and narratives that are predominant in a society. For example, in America, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of individualism and personal rights, and there is also a strong antipathy towards communism, socialism and authoritarianism. There is a strong belief that the freedoms offered in America allow anyone to succeed in life through hard work alone (a belief called the American Dream). These kinds of ideological beliefs can color the news published by American new organizations. In the 1980s, there was a strong bias in the American mass media against Japan, which at the time was beginning to threaten America’s economic dominance, and against the Soviet Union, which was a solcialist superpower. Today, there is a strong bias against China. The following magazine covers are representative of the mainstream media’s mainly negative portrayal of China:

A typical magazine cover depicting China
Negative media coverage

The above headlines and illustrations tend to combine elements of both ‘Red Scare’ (a fear of communism: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare) and ‘Yellow Peril’ (a perception that devious Asians threaten the Western world: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril). At times, the designs used in the media’s depiction of China is reminiscent of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda (see below), but with a LOT more red in the design.

Anti-Jewish propaganda
Anti-Jewish Propaganda

Let’s look at one obvious example of a simple news story being affected by an Anti-communist ideological filter. In the summer of 2020, a Chinese businessman suggested that people use a method to prevent food waste when eating out. He suggested that the number of dishes ordered should be one fewer than the number of diners in the group. Chinese government officials heard about this suggestion and then stated that they thought it was a good idea. They suggested that people should consider adopting it and should think of even more ways to reduce food waste.

However, this simple suggestion from the government was reported by CNN as a totalitarian regime’s ironfisted attempt to dictate what people are allowed to eat (edition.cnn.com/2020/08/28/asia/china-xi-jinping-clean-plate-campaign-dst-intl-hnk/index.html).

The article was full of words carrying negative connotations that play on the West’s image of China as an Orwellian dystopia:

  • drastic measures
  • threatened food bloggers
  • one intrusion too far into into citizens’ increasingly surveilled personal lives
  • fear of an official backlash
  • yet another political limitation on their everyday lives
  • censoring political discussion
  • 20 million surveillance cameras
  • China’s authoritarian system
  • local governments have expanded their surveillance
  • encouraging citizens to report each other
  • China’s agriculture sector is reeling from a series of natural disasters
  • threw the country’s agricultural sector into chaos
  • according to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily

It is only at the end of the article that the following quote appears to provide some semblance of balance, with one expert saying, “The truth is, the implementation won’t be very strict.” Aside from that one interviewee, ALL the other interviewees pointed out various problems with the waste-reduction schemes.

At no point in the article are the possible benefits of reducing food waste—like environmental protection or cost savings—mentioned.

This dystopia angle on that story was carried one step further by new agencies like Bloomberg, which stated that the food-waste ‘directive’ was evidence that the government was worried about food shortages and possibly even an impending famine (www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-20/xi-s-crusade-on-food-waste-triggers-rare-anxiety-over-supplies).

In reality, there was no government directive. There were no food shortages. There was no chaos. There was no famine. The media twisted something positive—a suggestion that people think of and implement ways to reduce food waste—into something dark and foreboding.    

This kind of ideological filter has two main purposes. 

  • The first is to get the general public to approve of military action and/or economic sanctions against those countries considered enemies.
  • The second purpose is to deflect attention from the failings of one’s own government and to present the existing political and economic systems as being the best ones possible. An American reading the CNN article about food waste in China, for example, is being encouraged to think something along the lines of ‘Wow, things aren’t perfect here in the US, but at least the government isn’t trying to control how much food I eat and the government isn’t watching me all day with cameras. And I don’t need to worry about starving to death in a famine. Thank God I live in America and not China.’    

Earlier this year, I was wondering if there was ever a golden age of the media, an era in which the press was free from this kind of ideological filter. I decided to randomly look at stories from the past. This article, from the Seattle Times in 1911, was the first one I read:

Seattle Times article from 1911

It seems that ideological filters have always been in the media. The short article above is about how white men (‘Scandinavians, Germans and straight Yankees’) were being pushed out of doing business at the local city market by Italians (who do not appear to have been considered ‘white’ at the time) and ‘Asiatics’. There is a clear bias against the darker-skinned immigrant ‘others’.

2.7 Audience Expectations

A news organization’s audience can also influence the kinds of stories it publishes. If more people buy your newspaper or watch your news broadcast, you can earn more money, not only from sales, but also from advertising. Thus, there is pressure on news media organizations to publish news that sells well—for example, news that is shocking or entertaining or news that fits nicely with what the readers and viewers already believe.  A story about a spat in Britain’s royal family, for example, isn’t very important, but it might help sell newspapers.       

2.8 Social Media & Other Competitors

Another influence is social media, particularly in its role as a competitor to the traditional news media. If a story is hugely popular on social media, can the traditional news media afford to ignore it? And if an unverified story is already circulating online, can the traditional news media really waste time to confirm all the details before running the story?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just run the story as soon as possible and then issue corrections afterwards if necessary?

This race-against-the-competition has always been there, but the pressure to deliver news stories quickly has been exacerbated by the rise of social media and 24-hour news networks.

Another issue is that people are increasingly getting their news via social media, so there is pressure on news organizations to create content that will appeal to the algorithms of social media giant like Meta (Facebook) and Twitter. A wordy and carefully balanced article is unlikely to be shared as much as a short controversial and opinionated article.

2.9 Personal Biases

Lastly, sometimes reporters and editors are simply biased, and their views affect the way they present their stories. Let’s look at one example of inaccurate and biased reporting from Hong Kong. In this article, reporters of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and RTHK criticized the Hong Kong government by claiming that the free food being provided to residents during a COVID-19 lockdown could not be opened as not everyone had can openers (www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3119031/hong-kong-lockdown-residents-given-food-they). Their reports included eyewitness statements (see below) and photos. However, there was something wrong with the cover photo for the article. Can you spot the problem?

The SCMP’s Photo

Congratulations if you found the problem.

All the cans had been turned upside down so that readers could not see the ring pulls that would allow anyone to easily open the cans.

Photo of a government relief package showing the tops of the cans (uploaded by an online commenter)

After getting mocked on social media, the SCMP later removed the photo and issued a statement on its Facebook and Twitter threads for the article. In the apology, the SCMP attempted to shift the blame to a local anti-establishment politician, Frank Ho, who had supplied the photos. However, in the apology the SCMP editors seemed to ignore the obviously fake eye-witness statement that was also included in the article, and they also wrote that only ‘some of the cans’ had been placed upside down (when in reality, it was ALL of the cans). Did the ‘eye-witness’ quotes also come from Frank Ho? Does the eyewitness, Mohammad, even exist? In any case, either the reporters knew they were creating a fake story or they were happy to sign their names to an article cooked up by someone else. In either scenario, it was dishonest and biased reporting.

Examples of comments on the Facebook page of the article
The SCMP’s correction on social media

Of course, this is just a relatively minor news story, but when such inaccurate and biased reporting is repeated over a long period, it can affect the views and attitudes of readers, listeners and viewers.

2.10 Summary

To sum up, those five main roles of a free press—keep the public well-informed, act as a gatekeeper, encourage social change, serve as a watchdog and provide a platform for citizens to express their opinions—can be undermined and distorted by the influences mentioned in this section—ownership, advertising & sponsorship, sourcing, flak, ideological narratives, the audience, competitors (including social media) and personal biases. 

These influences can affect:

  • What stories are selected
  • What stories are omitted
  • Whose voices are given a platform  
  • What pictures and video footage are published
  • What captions are given to the pictures 
  • What words are used in the article (e.g., ‘protester’ vs ‘rioter’ vs ‘activist’ vs ‘terrorist’)
  • And even what grammar structures are used (e.g., ‘protesters set a store on fire’ vs ‘a store was set on fire’ vs ‘a store burst into flames’)

Examples of these different kinds of biases will be presented in another article.

3. The Propaganda Model

Photo of a photographer, Umbrella Movement protests (Hong Kong, 2014)

This more complex look at the news media and its many influences is beginning to resemble what Noam Chomsky calls the Propaganda Model of the mass media. In the Propaganda Model, the main role of the mass media is to get the general public to go along with with the economic, social and political systems that benefit those with power. In other words, the media is used to gain the consent of the general public for economic, social and political policies (both domestic and foreign) that will ultimately benefit the ruling class. In this model, Chomsky describes five ‘filters’ that influence the mass media:

  1. Ownership (see Section 2.1)
  2. Advertising (see 2.2)
  3. Sourcing (see 2.3)
  4. Flak (see 2.5)
  5. Anti-communism (this is related to the influence of cultural and ideological narratives mentioned in Section 2.6)

Even if we set aside Chomsky’s hypothesis that the main purpose of the media is to promote the interests of the ruling class, there is no denying the existence of the five filters of the Propaganda Model as well as the other influences mentioned in Section 2.

4. The Commercial Model

Press crews, Umbrella Movement protests (Hong Kong, 2014)

This model, which I am calling the Commercial Model, is slightly less cynical than the Propaganda Model. In this model, the primary role of a news organization is simply to make money for the owners. A news organization is a business, and like any other business, earning a profit is its main goal. In the Commercial Model, the press still has the five main roles of the Free Press Model but the reporting is susceptible to being influenced by the business demands of running a news organization, including:

  • The need to attract readers/viewers (see 2.7)
  • The need to attract advertisers and sponsors and keep them satisfied (see 2.2)
  • The need to keep owners satisfied (see 2.1)
  • The logistics involved with getting source material and independently verifying it (see 2.4)
  • Time constraints and the need to stay ahead of the competition (see 2.8)

5. The Combined Model

TV Anchor: Hong Kong Pro-democracy Protest (1 October 2014)

Regarding the news media in America and other western countries, I would argue that these three models—the Free Press Model, the Propaganda Model and the Commercial Model—exist at the same time. A news organization may have complete editorial independence and unbiased, accurate reporting on one issue but very biased and deliberately deceptive reporting on another issue. And on yet another issue, economic and logistical constraints may lead the newspaper’s editors and reporters to unconsciously allow their story to be become distorted by biases.

Therefore, it might make more sense to think of the five roles of the Free Press model, the filters of the Propaganda Model, the influences of the Commercial Model and the additional influence of personal bias as being on a continuum, with the ideal of totally unbiased and honest reporting on one end and false and deliberately misleading propaganda on the other. Let’s call this model the Combined Model.

The big problem with this model, however is that the roles of the news media that make up the Combined Model—the Free Press Model, the Propaganda Model and Commercial Model—are very often at odds with one another.

6. A Case Study: Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

One obvious example of the mass media failing to do its job properly (according to the Free Press model) was during the lead up to America’s second war with Iraq, the one that started in 2003. Before the war, the American government claimed that its intelligence services had found ironclad evidence that Iraq was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) such as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The US government used this claim as justification to start a war with Iraq. After America invaded Iraq, however, it soon became clear that Iraq did not have an active program involving WMDs (www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/magazine/iraq-weapons-mass-destruction.html). 

Secretary of State Colin Powell giving a speech to the UN (5 February 2003) in which he stated that the US had irrefutable evidence that Iraq has an active WMD program (www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/colin-powell-u-n-speech-was-a-great-intelligence-failure/)

In the several months leading up the war, most American newspapers and magazines supported the WMD myth and in their articles and editorials pushed for war. News organizations, including influential publications like the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, reported the government’s claims and rationales without questioning or investigating them. Thus, the media—on the left AND the right—with the exception of a few organizations like Knight-Ridder, helped the government justify the war to its citizens.  

Here is a front page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller from the New York Times reporting, without question, US government claims that Iraq was purchasing parts to build nuclear weapons. Note how the large graphic beside the article features two children in front of an American flag and a message commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attack. The implied message of the combined graphic and article is clear—to prevent another terrorist attack and protect our country and our children, we need to take action against Iraq (even though Iraq had no involvement in the 9/11 attacks).    

New York Times front page (2002)

In an editorial in the New Yorker entitled Making a Case, David Remick wrote:

“History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.”

(www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/02/03/making-a-case)

In an editorial entitled Irrefutable, the Washington Post opened with this sentence:

“AFTER SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” 

(www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2003/02/06/irrefutable/e598b1be-a78a-4a42-8e1a-c336f7a217f4/)

Even Time for Kids got in on the WMD action:

Photo from twitter.com/acanticleforkev/status/1379260590640758785

Soon after the war started, it became clear there were no active WMD programs in Iraq. The reason for going to war had been a lie, a lie that had been enthusiastically supported by most of the American mass media (limacharlienews.com/op-ed/how-media-sold-iraq-war/). 

In a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), researchers looked at the 393 interviews about the potential for war with Iraq that had been broadcast on four influential news programmes (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) during a two week period in 2003. The researchers found that 199 of the interviewees were either current or former American government or military officials and that 198 of these officials supported the war. Only 1 expressed skepticism or opposition. Other interviewees included Iraqi officials and former or current representatives of other governments. These interviewees provided more balanced opinions, but still tended to be supportive of the war. As FAIR reports:

‘’Yet, at a time when 61 percent of respondents in a CBS poll (2/5–6/03) were saying that they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,’’ only 16 of the 68 U.S. guests (24 percent) who were not officials represented such views.”

(fair.org/take-action/action-alerts/in-iraq-crisis-networks-are-megaphones-for-official-views)

After it was found that Iraq did not have WMD programs, some newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, admitted that their reporting on the lead up to the war had been poor (New York Times admission: www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html; about the Washington Post admission: www.theguardian.com/world/2004/aug/13/pressandpublishing.usa).

However, nearly two decades later, the effects of the war are still causing huge problems for Iraq, which is still occupied by American forces. It is unknown exactly how many Iraqi civilians died in the war or in the conflicts that followed, but most estimates are at least in the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died at least in part because the press failed to carry out its ‘free press’ roles properly:  

  • The reporting was heavily biased in favor of war (thus failing in its role as information provider)
  • The media reported false information as irrefutable fact (thus failing in its role as a gatekeeper) 
  • The media did not try to soften America’s aggressive foreign policy (thus failing in its role as an agent of social change)
  • The media did not investigate the veracity of government claims (thus failing in its role as a watchdog)
  • When selecting interviewees, the media did not give a voice to a representative sample of Americans—it favored those who supported the war (thus failing in its role as a platform for the community)  

However, if we assume the news media is following the Propaganda Model, the American media’s coverage of the war could be considered a success. In a gallup poll conducted in May 2003, after military action had already begun, 79% of the Americans polled thought the Iraq War was justified, even without conclusive evidence of WMDs (web.archive.org/web/20180922202051/https://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A1155-2003May16/). In a 2015 poll, conducted over a decade AFTER the WMD claims had been discredited, 42% of the Americans (and over half of Republicans) surveyed believed Iraq did have an active WMD program leading up to the war (www.politico.com/story/2015/01/poll-republicans-wmds-iraq-114016).

If we assume the news media is following the Commercial Model, the American media’s coverage of the war was also a success. Due to the novelty of many of the televised elements—satellite images of missile strikes, real-time footage of battles and footage from journalists embedded with US troops—the war became something like a hit TV show, especially on cable news networks. According to the American Journalism Review:

“Tens of millions of viewers tuned to war coverage on the major networks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Cable, with its 24/7 coverage, was a big ratings winner. A Los Angeles Times national poll in early April showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans were getting most of their news about the war from cable. The Nielsen data showed that the number of average daily viewers for MSNBC and CNN increased more than 300 percent, while those for Fox rose more than 288 percent during the first two weeks of the war. Fox was the most-viewed cable news channel, averaging 3.3 million viewers per day. The highest-rated news program was “NBC Nightly News,” with more than 11.3 million viewers.

(www.lehigh.edu/~jl0d/J246-06/Iraq%20War%20TV-AJR.htm)

In the end, the media’s push for war greatly benefited news organizations financially.

If we assume the news media is following the Combined Model, the American media’s WMD reporting show us how thoroughly a news story can get stage-managed by those in power. In this case, the free press roles were overwhelmed by the propaganda role (gain consent for war) and commercial role (make a profit).

The WMD reporting debacle highlights the importance of the news media in the US and also its shortcomings.

7. Lack of Trust in the News Media

At present, the mainstream press does not seem to be effectively fulfilling the five roles—information provider, gate keeper, advocate for change, watchdog and community platform—of the Free Press model. Consequently, trust in the news media in countries like America is extremely low.

If trust in the media falls further, what will happen? Will the traditional news media become redundant?

8. The State Model

Let’s look at one more mass media model.  In a country like China, which has a socialist and authoritarian government, the mass media follows a completely different model—I will call it the State Model—and in this model, the news media has two main functions that do not exist in the Free Press Model.

  1. First, the news media serves as a channel for the government to directly communicate its philosophies, plans and policies to its citizens.
  2. Second, the news media serves to promote unity, social stability, desired social values and social harmony

The other five roles—keep the public well-informed, act as a gatekeeper, promote social change, serve as a watchdog and provide a platform for citizens to express their opinions—are still there, but they are subservient to and cannot be separated from the above two main functions. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, when the Chinese government was trying to pull the entire nation together, you wouldn’t find newspaper articles questioning government-mandated measures such as wearing masks and locking down entire cities of millions of people. 

In this news media model, the watchdog role is limited. The media in China can report on corruption, but only up to a point—and definitely not if the central government thinks that the reporting might lead to social unrest. 

The ‘shining a light’ role is also different from that in the Free Press model. Generally, the government in China finds out about problems via social media and through the various channels in which it collects direct feedback from its citizens. The government then decides how to address those issues, and then the media reports on what the government is doing or plans to do to solve the problem (and how citizens can help).

If you look at the news media in China and evaluate how well it functions according to the Free Press Model, you will see that it fails spectacularly. For example in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders (rsf.org/en/index), China ranked 175th out of 180 countries. However, you need to bear in mind that it is a completely different model. If you ranked the American news media on how well it promoted unity, social stability and social harmony, it would also rank very poorly indeed (It is also important to bear in mind that although Reporters without Borders claims to be independent it is largely funded by European governments and organizations like NED (the National Endowment for Democracy) and George Soro’s Open Society Foundation).

This State Model is not unique to China. For example, Singapore, which is a democracy, also has a tightly-controlled news media with a lot of emphasis placed on maintaining harmony between the country’s many different racial and religious groups. In addition, in the State Model, news publications are less uniform than one may think, with some publications leaning more towards political propaganda and others leaning more towards infotainment.

As the Chinese government has a lot of control over the media, does that mean the Chinese people are brainwashed? No. This is where a lot of observers get things wrong. The main point is that people in China understand that their media is following a different kind of model—and they are fully aware that some topics may be censored, that some information may be suppressed and that the information that is reported in the news is the information that the government wants reported. As a consequence, readers and viewers in China tend to be skeptical of the mass media.  Chinese writer Ren Yi states: 

“The truth is, people who live in a somewhat sophisticated authoritarian society, like China or the Soviet Union of the recent past, are more likely to have developed a cognitive condition better understood as cynicism – a proclivity for denial, rejection, doubt and non-belief, unless such information is checked and somehow verifiable. This actually makes them much more suspicious to one-way information, especially when it’s backed by the government.”

(www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3034211/mainland-chinese-who-oppose-hong-kongs-protests-arent-brainwashed)

Ren Yi goes on to point out that to find out about what is going on, instead of relying only on official state media, Chinese citizens will access different sources of information, such as:

  • Internet chat rooms and other social media platforms
  • Western news sites that are not blocked by China’s ‘great firewall’
  • Western news sites and social media platforms that are blocked in China (but that are still accessible using VPNs—Virtual Private Networks—which are used by many people in Mainland China)

However, if Chinese netizens visit a site like CNN or the BBC, they also tend to carry that skepticism and suspicion with them, and they will not automatically assume that whatever CNN and the BBC is reporting is the complete, unbiased truth. To them, the official mainland China news organizations have their preferred narratives, and news organizations like CNN or the BBC also have their own preferred narratives. 

You might be wondering about the differences between the State Model and the Propaganda Model. In the State Model: 

  • Major corporations, wealthy media moguls, advertisers, sponsors and religious sects don’t have much, if any, influence.
  • The fact that the government controls the media is explicit and well known. There is no pretense of having a completely free and independent press.
  • There is much more emphasis on social harmony (with the avoidance of anything that might sow discord).       
  • Deliberate misinformation appears to be very uncommon. This is likely because if fake news is discovered, as it almost certainly will at some point, such a discovery will damage the government’s credibility. In the State Model, information may be withheld or presented in an overly positive light, but it is not normally completely fabricated.

Consequently, though people in China recognize that the official media is biased, they still tend have trust in it. In the previously mentioned Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, the figure for trust in government reported by Chinese respondents—80%—was the highest among all the countries surveyed (see the following charts).

From Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 (www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer)

There is a joke amongst Chinese netizens that goes along the lines of:

Chinese person: I’ve come to the US to learn how to do propaganda.
American person: But we don’t have propaganda in America.
Chinese person: Exactly! That’s what I want to learn!

The State Model of the news media would likely be incompatible with a liberal democracy as it would be at odds with the principle of free speech and it would severely weaken one of the checks and balances that are important in western democracies. However, it may suit societies that place more emphasis on social harmony and unity.

8. Conclusion

Press at the Hong Kong protests (2019)

Which model is better? Personally I prefer the Free Press model as it allows for a wide variety of different views to reach the general public. However, how well do news organizations in countries like the US, Britain and Australia, actually follow the Free Press Model? Does the Free Press Model really exist or is it just an unobtainable ideal?

Another important question is whether some models work better in some societies. Is it possible that the Free Press Model is preferable in some societies while the State Model may be preferable in other societies? Therefore, rather than asking which model is the best, we may need to ask which model works best for that society.

Even if we go for the Free Press Model as an ideal system, we need to understand that media organizations do not always perform their roles effectively and responsibly. They often fall far short of the ideal. Thus, as news consumers, we have to be more skeptical of the information being presented to us by the mass media. We need to become wiser consumers of the news, we need to seek information from as wide a range of sources as possible and we need to push news organizations to better live up to the ideals of a free press.

If we accept that the Combined Model to be the norm—where everything in the news is on a continuum somewhere between objective truth and absolute dishonesty—how do we know what news to believe? How can we expect people to trust the media? And how do we give young people the skills necessary to identify bias and misinformation in the news media?  These are three important questions for us to consider.

Photos

I took the black-and-white photos during protests in Hong Kong. You can see more photos and read about the protests in my articles:

Your Thoughts

Feel free to leave a comment below. Did I leave any points out? Do you have any examples of obvious bias? Which model best represents the press in your country?


~ by longzijun

writing

Return to Writing

Photo Essay: Hong Kong Protests (2014 Umbrella Movement)

At the barricade at the north of Tim Wa avenue (Admiralty)

This photo essay shows the day-to-day life of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during the 79-day Umbrella Movement protests that took place in the autumn of 2014. During that period, protesters occupied streets in three districts in Hong Kong with the aim of reforming elections so that Hong Kong people would be allowed to vote for the territory’s top official—the Chief Executive—and for all the lawmakers (only half of which were directly elected).

I have another article—The Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020—which covers the more recent protests.

At the time, news coverage tended to focus on tense confrontations between protesters and police. Footage of demonstrators fleeing from police and shielding themselves from teargas and pepper spray caught the world’s attention, but those images don’t represent the whole story. The aim of my photography was to try to present the individual people involved.

Young protesters at Admiralty

The protests were for the most part very peaceful. I visited the various protest sites around thirty times but never encountered any violence and only witnessed a few tense scenes.

Young protester at the Admiralty site

The nature of the protest changed day-by-day, hour by hour. During the evening, thousands of protesters might occupy the streets; but the next morning this might be reduced to a few hundred hardcore members manning the barricades as their comrades trooped off blurry-eyed to work or school after spending the night on the pavement.

The main protest site at Admiralty

What made Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests in 2014 so distinctive was young protesters’ total commitment to non-violent civil disobedience—there has been no looting and almost no vandalism aside from chalked slogans on the pavement. Unfortunately, as the protests were coming to an end, a few frustrated protesters smashed glass panes at the entrance of the Hong Kong’s Central Government Offices, putting a blemish on what had otherwise been a remarkable show of restraint. Even the symbol of the protest movement—the umbrella—was one of resistance and protection rather than aggression and attack (this changed in the more recent protests of 2019-2020).

Form 6 (Grade 12) girl with umbrella

And this is ultimately what the protest was about—protection. Concerned about the growing encroachment of mainland China into the territory’s politics, media and social fabric, the student protesters maintained that in order to safeguard Hong Kong’s unique culture and identity, one of the most important measures was for Hong Kong citizens to have the freedom to nominate and elect its own leader.

Calling for universal suffrage

The Reason for the Protest

The protest started in response to the announcement by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on 31 August 2014 regarding the 2017 elections for the territory’ s top political post (the Chief Executive). The announcement can be summed up as: “For the first time you will be able to elect the Chief Executive through universal suffrage, BUT we will select all the candidates for you beforehand via a selection committee.”

Volunteers distributing tissue paper

That proposal was in line with the Basic Law, the document that is the foundation of the One Country Two Systems policy and which is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a certain amount of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. Article 45 of the Basic Law clearly states that there is a two-step process to the election of the Chief Executive, with one step being selection/election and the other being approval by the central government. However, many Hong Kong people, disenchanted with the performance of all three Chief Executives since the handover in 1997, had been hoping for greater say into who runs the territory.

The aim of the protest was to allow Hong Kong people greater say in the nomination of candidates for Chief Executive.

Many of the protesters are university students, but people from all walks of life are actively involved .
Andrew is a retired civil engineer who regularly attended protests at one of the three occupied sites. There was also a fourth tiny site on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, and he was there when that site got shut down. He said there were a only a handful of protesters there when they were surrounded by a large group of men who demanded that they leave. The protesters were told by police that it would be safer for the them if they left, so they did. Like many protesters I have spoken to, Andrew was pessimistic about whether the protest movement would meet its aims, but he said it was still important to for Hong Kongers to speak up and make their voices heard. I met him on the 14 October at Admiralty, and he said he had only missed one day of the Occupy protests since 28 September. Andrew was also interviewed for an article that is now offline. In that article, when asked why his generation didn’t take action earlier, he was quoted as saying: “At that time, we were not aware of where this all would lead,” said Leung. “Plus, the situation has changed a lot in 30 years. Look at where we are now.”
University students
A secondary school girl encourages visitors and protesters to write messages.
A young woman adding a message of support.
Dr. Kacy Wong invites people to discuss issues with him.
If we lose this battle…

How the Protests Grew

The protests started as a five-day boycott (22-26 September) of college and university classes by the The Hong Kong Federation of Students (which was composed of the student unions of the territory’s eight universities). Towards the climax of the boycott, the student unions were joined by Scholarism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholarism), a political activist group led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong.

As part of the boycott, students protested outside the Central Government Complex in Admiralty district and demanded free, fair and open elections. A separate protest campaign—Occupy Central with Peace and Love (their website is now offline)—was to begin on 1 October. This movement was led by Benny Tai, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. As the name suggests, this campaign was loosely based on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Joshua Wong (with microphone) addresses a forum for high school students (14 October). The umbrella-themed art installation behind him was created by students at City University’s School of Creative Media.
Secondary students at the forum
Joshua Wong meets briefly with reporters. At 17 years of age he is already a seasoned activist.

On Friday evening (26 September), the last scheduled day of the student boycott, a small group of protesters managed to push through the police cordon and past the gates outside the main government offices and…well…they just sat down around the flagpoles in the forecourt, where they were immediately ringed in by police. In keeping with the non-violent spirit of the protest, the student protesters did not attempt to vandalize or enter the government buildings. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but the police, clad in their usual uniform—short-sleeved shirt, trousers and cap—and reflective vests, acted with restraint. During the evening, two prominent student leaders were arrested at the protest site.

One of leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students negotiates with police outside the government offices (2 August)

The next day police cleared the forecourt of protesters. In general, the police behaved reasonably, using minimal force to carry people away, but a few officers struck out with their batons and some others rashly and unnecessarily used pepper spray on students. This heavy-handed treatment of non-violent student protesters was televised live and provoked a strong public reaction. Another issue was the police’s continued detention of student leader Joshua Wong.

On Sunday morning, protesters started streaming towards the government office mainly to support the students and ensure they were not manhandled by the police. The main rallying cry was ‘protect the students‘ and not ‘occupy the streets‘. The police, now wearing helmets and with many officers clad in full riot gear, halted the protesters. I am not sure what they thought this would achieve.

The arriving protesters, blocked from progressing towards the Central Government Complex by the police, flooded into nearby streets blocking traffic on Connaught Road. To take advantage of this development, the organizers of Occupy Central with Peace and Love announced an immediate start to their campaign. More and more protesters started streaming into the streets, and then police made the rash decision to try to clear the streets using tear gas and pepper spray. Because of the risks associated with using tear gas on crowds, it is generally not used against peaceful demonstrators, and it is uncertain as to whether the use of tear gas by police on that day was lawful (researchblog.law.hku.hk/2014/09/legal-authority-for-police-to-use-tear.html). In any case, its use only served to escalate the protest (In the protests or 2019-2020, tear gas was used a LOT, but in 2014, people were shocked to see tear gas being used in the streets).

It was a hot day, so many protesters had brought umbrellas to the protest to shield themselves from the sun. The umbrellas instead ended up being use to ward off tear gas canisters and pepper spray. This is how the Umbrella Movement got its name.

While police were struggling in their attempt to clear the streets in Admiralty, protesters used social media to quickly mobilize. In a matter of minutes they were able to occupy main thoroughfares in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, opening up two new fronts for the police to try to control and sending a message of “Even if you keep us out of one place, we can easily pop up in another place.

At Admiralty, police eventually ceased the tear gas attacks and retreated back inside the main government complex. Strategically outmaneuvered, the police had lost the battle. And with the heavy-handed tactics, they lost the respect of many of Hong Kong’s citizens.

As this illustration by local artist Vin shows, the police use of pepper spray and tear gas led protesters to create makeshift protective gear out of raincoats, goggles, face masks and umbrellas.
Yes, people did dress like that.
Police reinforcements arrive at the Central Government Complex and are jeered by the crowd (of course, it didn’t help that they were spotted bringing in barrels of tear gas and cases of rubber bullets). At least one of the police officers seems to be feeling the pressure.

I have no idea if the student leaders had planned on this kind of occupation, but at the end of the day, protesters were in control of three sites. There was an attempt to establish a fourth site—in Tsim Sha Tsui—but that one fizzled out.

The Admiralty Site

The main site protest site was in Admiralty, where protesters occupied several city blocks and surrounded the main government offices, including the Legislative Council building as well as the office of the Chief Executive. On weekends and public holidays the number of protesters swelled into the tens of thousands, with numbers dwindling to several hundred in the morning as those who have stayed overnight go to school, went to work or just went home to freshen up and get some rest.

The Admiralty site at night (view looking towards Central)

The atmosphere there was incredibly civil—kind of like a mellow folk festival, but with large rallies, small forums and informal singalongs among friends.

Students singing protest songs
Secondary school students singing at Admiralty
Martin Lee (right), founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party from 1994 to 2002 speaks at a small forum. Along with the late Szeto Wah, Martin Lee led Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement during the 1980s and 1990s. The 2014 strike and protest is in part a reaction to the lack of success of Lee’s attempts to promote democracy via electoral reform and political lobbying. Though one of the leading figures of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in the past, he was only treated as a marginal figure among the protesters of 2014.
Sharing session at Admiralty
Rallying the crowds (the Westerner in the background appears to be American Brian Kern, who later became notorious for taking on a local Hong Kong Chinese persona—called Kong Tsung-gan—who was frequently interviewed by the international media as a representative voice of Hong Kong. In one article, his Hong Kong Chinese persona actually interviewed is Mainland Chinese persona)
Protesters at Tim Wa Avenue
The Admiralty site often has a slightly festive feel to it. Here are some volunteers at a body art station.
With a partner, this young man is working on a kind of photography project.
Support from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union

In November, with the weather finally starting to cool and the the government cancelling talks with the student leaders, the protesters began to settle in, setting up more and tents throughout the site.

Overlooking the Admiralty site
The main road at night
Tents everywhere!
Some students customized their tens with artwork
Sharing session at Admiralty
Wally is a well-known local busker (he usually dresses up as the Where’s Wally character when performing)
Graduates pose for a photo
Girls making fabric umbrellas
As the protests wore on, the site could get quite sparsely populated. Some of the protest methods, like the cardboard cutout of Chinese President Xi Jinping shown in the photo above, where quite whimsical
Even towards the end of the rally, massive crowds would turn up for rallies.

Volunteers at Admiralty

A small army of student volunteers (as well as a number of volunteers from churches and Christian groups) helped maintain the site, providing free food, water and other essential supplies. Volunteers walked through the site to collect waste and bring it to one of several recycling stations for separation; they even gave talks on waste collection methods. Volunteers set up and manned first aid stations (whose staff included many medical students) and phone-recharging centers, assisted people clambering over traffic barriers and helped maintain an orderly flow of pedestrian traffic. I asked a few volunteers if they knew who was coordinating the efforts, and they all replied that no one was actually in charge; that different groups took it upon themselves to recognize a need and then work towards meeting that need.

Volunteers at one of the recycling stations
Volunteers spraying water on passers-by to keep them cool
Volunteer spraying water on passers-by to keep them cool
Volunteers at a resource station
Volunteers distributing water
A young woman sweeps up rubbish at a nearby bus terminus
Social worker station at the Admiralty site
Red Cross volunteers

The Study Corner at Admiralty

In early October, a study center sprang up in the middle of the site with several tables set up for students trying to keep up with their coursework.

Admiralty study corner
Admiralty study corner

So where did all those tables and chairs come from? Many of them were made by volunteer carpenters such as these men:

Volunteer carpenters
Jeffrey, a volunteer carpenter. He is a self-taught English learner and is very well read. The book he was reading at the time was: “Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World.” Commenting on his participation in the movement, Jeffrey said, “Almost everyone here comes here because they are self-motivated. I am not a student I am don’t belong to a political party. I am not part of an organization. I come because I am self-motivated.”

After a few weeks, the study center acquired a roof and started to look a little like a café.

The study corner

The Causeway Bay Site

A second site occupied a couple of blocks in Causeway Bay, a shopping and entertainment district a few kilometers to the East of Admiraly. The site was centered on the super busy intersection outside the Sogo department store. Usually, there were only a few hundred protesters there at any given time. The mood there is also laid back, but as an occupation site, it seemed rather vulnerable—a kind of isolated outpost.

Causeway Bay
Hong Kong Mobile Democracy Classroom at Causeway Bay. These kinds of small scale workshops and talks were a common feature at the Causeway Bay site.
Sharing across generations
Most of the time, the protest sites were calm and peaceful. A group of volunteers were taking a break at a message writing center (where people are asked to express words of support on pieces of cardboard)
Medical students volunteering at a first aid station
At the Causeway Bay site, there were frequent talks, forums and classes. Here a volunteer is giving a lecture on digital photography. You can see the course schedule on the right. If you stuck around, you could brush up on your Japanese and refresh your memory of high school physics and biology.
Volunteers at a resource center (the supplies are given away for free)
Young volunteers

The Mong Kok Site

The third site was in Mong Kok, a densely populated, perpetually busy commercial and residential district across the harbor in Kowloon. Here protesters occupied the normally bustling intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street. The intersection was later cleared, but protesters maintained control of a few blocks of Nathan Road and another couple of blocks north of the intersection. If you watched the news and saw scuffles between different groups of civilians this is likely where that was happening. The protesters were sometimes subject to harassment and attacks. (I don’t have any photos of this, but I did take some video footage of minor confrontations.

Some of the anti-protesters were local residents who were angry with the disruption in their neighborhood, but some seemed to be hired thugs. On 3 October, for example, a group of masked men attacked protesters and pulled down stalls. The attackers were later recorded on video being ushered away by police and into waiting taxis.

On Nathan Road
Two school girls with their yellow dove. They were tying to spread a message of peace.

Anger was directed against police, who were accused of either actively colluding with triad members or of simply looking the other way. Student leaders suggested abandoning the Mong Kok site to concentrate their manpower at the main site, but the protest area in Mong Kok was mainly run by grassroots activists (not student groups), and they had no intention on leaving.

Beside Nathan Road
Setting up a shelter on Nathan Road
Setting up a shelter on Nathan Road
Setting up a tent on Nathan Road
A speech at Mong Kok
Protesters and street sign
Protesters at the front line
Protesters at the front line. This particular group was occupying a single block on Portland Street in Mong Kok, so they were in a particularly vulnerable position.
Protesters at the front line
Protesters at the front line
Taunting the police in Cantonese and English. This protester was known as Mong Kok Painter, as he spend a lot of time drawing graffiti (mainly Wildstyle) paintings in a sketchbook. He was pretty aggressive though and was one of the first protesters arrested during the protests in 2019.
Exhausted
As there was not much tension away from the front lines, parents sometimes brought their young children.
In November a comfy-looking mini-library was set up in the middle of Nathan Road.
Let’s read
Relaxing on barricades
Finding material to write on in a rubbish skip. This photos was taken a day after the Mong Kok site was cleared by police. Protesters were still hanging around.

Artists

Vin, the illustrator of the drawing “Who dress me like this?” shown earlier in this article.

Many artists visited the sites to sketch and paint works and other artists put up posters, banners and sculptures. By the end of the protests, the Admiralty site looked like an outdoor contemporary art gallery. I am not in the middle of editing those photos and posting them on my art blog. At the moment I have only completed one page: Art of the Umbrella Movement: Part 1. Paintings and Sketches

Perry Dino is a an artist and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I came across him at the Admiralty site, where he was on an overpass beside the BBC news crew. 
Perry Dino paints at the Mong Kok site.
Frances Lee (pseudonym) is a Hong Kong-based artist. During the Umbrella Movement he created a series or paintings that involved collaborative touches added by passers-by.
A young woman works on one of his paintings.
The finished paintings were displayed a few weeks later at the Admiralty site.
Flyingpig is a young Hong Kong artist who specializes in watercolor paintings of daily life in local neighborhoods. During the Umbrella movement protests, she was mainly concerned with documenting the normal routines at the protest site.
New York Artist Miso Zo at work at the Admiralty site. Miso Zo is pseudonym. He is a New York-based artist who was in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He also did some installation pieces during the Umbrella Movement protests.
When I came across Misa Zo at the Admiralty protest site, he was working in acrylic and oil paint on a large canvas, the painting depicting a scene capturing the more peaceful side of the movement. In that painting, set in a quiet area a few blocks away from the main protest site at Admiralty, a man is getting a haircut in the middle of the road.
I was a little perplexed by the tree imagery, so I asked the artist what her message was. She replied: “This idea comes from a conversation I had with my sister. She asked me if I had heard the birds singing this morning. That made me think. When birds are flying, when they are in the air, they don’t sing. It is only when they are in the trees that they sing. It’s just like people in Hong Kong normally. They are flying here and flying there, going to work, working, going home, always going somewhere. always doing something. But now they have stopped for a moment to come here…like birds returning to the tree. And now it is time for them to sing. And now people can hear their voices.”
This is a group of photographers and designers who took photos of protest participants in a series called Yellow Backdrop Hong Kong. The Facebook page where they posted the photos is no longer online. I spoke to the photographer (at very left in the above picture) and it turns out that we were both motivated by the same impulse. Portrayals of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests in the local media focused on confrontation, social division and violence. If you walked around the three sites regularly, however, the thing that would strike you was the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, the positive spirit of people and the strong sense of community, with everyone pitching in and playing a part. He is hoping to capture and share that spirit of camaraderie, solidarity and positivity by working on a a series of portraits of people posing in front of a vibrant yellow background.

Caricature artists also dropped by from time to time to sketch participants in the. Umbrella Movement.

Caricature artist
Sketches of participants and visitors
Caricature artist

Press & Researchers

Reporters came from around the world.

Reporter at the Admiralty site
Reporter at the Admiralty site
A BBC reporter takes a break
This is award-winning Getty photojournalist Paula Bronstein. She created a stir in Hong Kong when she was detained and charged with criminal damage on 17 October while covering an attempt by protesters to reclaim an intersection in Mong Kok. She had been standing on the hood of someone’s car (with the driver still inside) in order to get a better shot.  
A local reporter covers events in Mong Kok
Camera operators perched atop an MTR entrance in Mong Kok
Interview in progress (Admiralty)

In addition, local universities conducted research at the sites.

At the Mong Kok site on 16 November, two journalism students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong were conducting a questionnaire and interview survey in Mong Kok as part of their department’s research on the public’s attitudes towards the occupy movement. Although they had only just finished collecting the data, they suggested that public support for the protesters’ strategy of occupying key streets appeared to be waning. Their observations were consistent with findings from other surveys. A telephone poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion between 5 and 11 November showed that just over two-thirds of the respondents want protesters to completely evacuate the streets (PDF File: www.com.cuhk.edu.hk/ccpos/images/news/TaskForce20141116-e.pdf). In another survey conducted by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 73% of respondents indicated that they wanted the protests to end (the article, entitled Lau Siu-kai blasts occupy campaign for bad strategies—is now offline)

Police

The police had a tough time as they had to work long hours and put up with a lot of abuse. In the end, they were probably the biggest ‘losers’ in this battle. It became clear that the role of the police had become politicized.

Police standing away from the action in Mong Kok
Police officer, Mong Kok
Police officer, Mong Kok
By the time this photo (as well as the next two photos) was taken on 26 November, police had cleared Mong Kok and were trying to ensure protesters didn’t retake the streets. This was the only time I saw a police dog being used.
Police cordon.
Police officers (Mong Kok)
Police officer (Mong Kok)

Did Most Hong Kong People Support the Protests ?

It is safe to say that most Hong Kong citizens would have liked a greater say in the choice of Chief Executive, but it is unclear whether this is mainly due to their dissatisfaction with all three post-handover leaders (Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang and C. Y. Leung) or a deep desire for democracy and political self-determination.

Chalk graffiti
Go to school during the day; protest at night

Not everyone in favor of increased democracy, however, agreed that protests were the best way forward. Among Hong Kong residents opposed to the protests are those who:

  • preferred a less-confrontational wait-and-see approach in the hope that China would gradually become a more open and democratic country
  • were somewhat supportive of the protests, but felt the students hade made their point and should pack it in
  • had resigned themselves to the belief that the mainland’s grip over Hong Kong would inevitably become even tighter over time, so students should just return to classes, work harder, graduate and think about emigrating
  • saw Hong Kong’s future as being inextricably intertwined with China and believed that if one had a more positive outlook, it would be possible to take advantage of all the things China has to offer
  • worked or lived near the protest sites and were fed up with the disruption.
Painting a banner

There are also those opposed to democracy in general. These include:

  • Beijing loyalists such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its supporters. The DAB is a political party that has been unwaveringly loyal to China’s Central Government. It is is quite well supported in Hong Kong due to its strong organization at the grassroots level and efforts at representing its constituents;
  • Ardent nationalist groups such as Caring Hong Kong Power, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Youth Care. They are known for their use of Cultural-Revolution-style intimidation tactics (badcanto.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/the-conspiracy-behind-suicidal-pro-china-organisations/ & (www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2013/09/09/2003571680);
  • Anti-imperialists who view the pro-democracy movement as a plot hatched, planned and funded by American intelligence services looking to destabilize the territory and weaken China (the protesting university students are viewed as unwitting dupes manipulated into betraying their country). Here is an article by Laura Ruggeri outlining this argument:  Agents of Chaos. How the U.S. Seeded a Colour Revolution in Hong Kong.

There exist deep divisions within Hong Kong and it is unlikely that the majority of Hong Kong people supported the protests.

Volunteers lay out messages of support

Did the Protest Have a Chance to Succeed?

Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong people had twice used massive protests to stave off unpopular political proposals. They forced the Hong Kong government into shelving the introduction of far-reaching anti-sedition laws (the Article 23 protests of 1993 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Basic_Law_Article_23) and into indefinitely delaying the introduction of a mandatory propaganda-heavy Moral and National Education curriculum in the territory’s secondary schools (the student-led protests of 2012 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_and_national_education). It was during this second campaign, that many of the student leaders of this current campaign gained experience.

Students at Admiralty

However, this time the protest was against a decision by China’s central government, which would not want to see a precedent of being forced though public dissent to backtrack on official policy.

Origami umbrellas

Thus, even if there was disagreement among different political factions in China about what to do with Hong Kong, the idea of Chinese leaders giving in to protesters’ demands for greater democracy seemed rather far-fetched.

Photographer in front of the Lennon Wall—a staircase covered in messages—at the Admiralty site.

In addition, Hong Kong simply lacks leverage with China. With a typical strike or boycott, protesters send a message of “We are prepared to make a sacrifice to get what we want. We will suffer, but you will suffer, too; so it is in your best interest to meet our demands.” In this case, however, China can simply say “Yeah, about that suffering…if you want to suffer, that’s fine with us. We can help you suffer some more. Shall we shut down your economy?

During the protests, China started applying gentle pressure already by halting many group tours from the mainland. As Mainland tourists made up the bulk of visitors to Hong Kong, local businesses began to feel the pinch and public antagonism towards the protesters grew. In this CNN video, Michael DeGolyer describes this strategy of slowly applying crushing pressure as the ‘anaconda scenario’ (edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2014/10/08/pkg-stevens-hong-kong-anaconda-strategy.cnn.html).

A hunger striker named Benny (at Admiralty)

At the same time as public support for their protests began to wane. the students themselves were getting worn out mentally and physically as they try to cope with the pressures of living on the street while trying to keep up with their classwork and negotiate with disapproving parents.

Get rest while you can.
Protest Life

As the situation at the protest sites can unfold so rapidly, even if protesters could get away for a night’s rest, some of them would set the alarm to wake up every two or three hours so that they could return if needed. The effects began take their toll and the students’ resolve began to waver.

At the Admiralty site.

It is hard to see what the students could gain from Beijing. Perhaps, the best they could have hoped for was to extract some minor concessions from the local government. Commenting on an article by local businessman Allan Zeman (entitled ‘We can keep building on our can do spirit’), James Tan suggested these possible concessions:

“[for the HK government to (for example):

  • hold independent public enquiries into allegations of: 1. use of excessive force by the police since September 27th during all the recent protest; 2. collusion between police and triads in recent days.
  • apologise for illegally detaining student leaders for over 48 hours;
  • review all charges against all protesters since September 27th;
  • consider conveying student and protesters’ demands w.r.t. NPCSC’s Framework for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017 to the NPCSC, subject to the outcome of planned negotiations between students and the government”

What did the Protesters Expect to Achieve?

I asked many participants this question. Surprisingly, not one of the people I spoke to expected the protests to change anything. They all said that they simply wanted their voices to be heard and realized that the protest might be the last time they would have the chance. Perhaps the Umbrella Movement’s leaders had higher hopes, but the ordinary people I talked to were all rather pragmatic and pessimistic.

Young woman drawing flower designs with chalk.

Many people hoped that the local government will be more responsive to its citizens’ needs and wants. The government cannot be ousted at the ballot box, but the students showed that Hong Kong people were willing to make a stand for what they believe in.

If a more careful, caring and considerate governing style takes root in Hong Kong, perhaps that will be the lasting legacy of these protests.

Making history
The next generation

More Pictures

You can visit the Google Photos gallery (photos.app.goo.gl/DzJy8gM8oKy6XAcXA) album where there are more than 200 images (including the ones on this page) at a resolution of 2048 x 1035. This gallery is not yet up to date. You can also view a gallery of 554 black-and-white photos on Flickr: HK Pro-democracy protests 2014

A couple of people have mentioned that I should not show people’s faces in the pictures. However, all the photos in these albums only show people attending a protest (Freedom of assembly is normally enjoyed in Hong Kong) and the protest is only in support of increased democracy (a principle enshrined in the Basic Law). Bear in mind that the aim of the photo gallery is to present a more human side to the protests. Simply having photos of anonymous masked protesters will not achieve that aim.

If you are featured in one of the photos and would like to NOT be identifiable, let me know and I will pixelate your face.

Postscript

The protests came to an end late November (Mong Kok) and early December (Admiralty and Causeway Bay) after bus companies obtained court injunctions requiring the streets to be cleared. One by one, the protest sites were cleared. Protesters packed up and police and cleaning crews moved in, meeting little to no resistance.

Cleaning the streets: Admiralty

There were quite a few causes for the end of the protest:

  • The legal actions taken by the bus companies, which would have put anyone failing to comply with the orders to clears the site in contempt of court)
  • The protester’s exhaustion (many of them were students, who would soon sit for exams)
  • Dwindling public support
  • Lack of leadership among the protesters (there was no one actually in charge of the protests)
  • Government intransigence.

Were the protests successful? The government made no concessions and the protests ended, so it emerged as a clear ‘victor’.

I put ‘victor’ in quotation marks because by taking such a hardline against peaceful protesters and refusing to make any concessions, the government unwittingly gave birth to more radical protest movements that have ideologies ranging from stressing localism to calling for independence. When the opportunity came to protest again during the so-called Fishball Revolution (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Mong_Kok_civil_unrest) during the Lunar New Year Holiday in 2016, the number of protesters was much smaller, but they were a lot nastier, as witnessed by their attacks on police The protest quickly escalated to a riot, with protesters hurling bricks at police and viciously assaulting a fallen officer, leading to one of his colleagues firing warning shots into the air.

Similarly, the anti-extradition bill protests of 2019-2020 have been marred by the use of violence. vandalism and intimidation.

The protesters of the Umbrella Movement won nothing.  However, regarding the people I spoke to—the ones who expressed a desire to be heard—I suppose that to a certain extent, they did succeed. For a couple of months, their voices were heard.  

This photo was taken the night the Admiralty site was cleared. Most of the messages on the Lennon wall had been torn down, but this one remained.

~Photos and text by longzijun

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